Freedmen’s descendants discover past By Judy Gibbs Robinson
When a cotton swab scraped a few cells from the inside of Rhonda Grayson’s cheek last June, she was pretty sure what she would find. Like most of those at the conference sponsored by the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized tribes, Grayson wanted ironclad proof she is part American Indian. She got it. “It showed I had 9 percent Native American blood,” said Grayson, a black woman who has traced her lineage to a great-grandmother on the Chickasaw freedmen rolls. “I was not surprised … but I didn’t know what percentage I would have.” Others were surprised by the findings, including Rick Kittles, the Ohio State University geneticist whose assistant swabbed about 100 cheeks that day in Norman. Kittles returns Saturday to report on his findings at the association’s third annual conference at the University of Oklahoma. The conference starts at 9 a.m. in Dale Hall. Intrigued by the plight of Oklahoma’s black Indians, Kittles came to Oklahoma to test his hypothesis that descendants of Oklahoma Freedmen today would be about 20 percent American Indian. The figure was 6 percent. “It was shocking to see it was so low,” Kittles said in a telephone interview from his office. His findings came as a blow to some study participants who trace their ancestry to tribal members and expected a stronger genetic stamp. “That’s how science is,” Kittles said. “When you start looking into things like this, you should be aware and be ready to deal with the unexpected.” European genesAnother surprise was the percentage of European genes — about 20 percent — in the study participants. “That was much higher than I thought, but in talking with some of the anthropologists, they say many of the Native Americans in that area were already mixed with whites before mixing with the blacks,” Kittles said. In other words, they could have gotten some European genes from their Indian ancestors. LaMona Evans-Groce of Edmond, whose grandmother received a 140-acre allotment of Creek land, said she was disappointed to learn she is 29 percent European and only 11 percent American Indian. “I thought it was more because my grandmother is so American Indian,” Evans-Groce said. But she and other members of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes said the findings will not deter them from seeking citizenship and equal rights in the tribes their ancestors once embraced. Pre-Civil War rootsTheir battle has its roots before the Civil War, when the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Creek tribes brought African slaves with them when they were removed from their Southern homelands to Oklahoma. In addition, most Eastern tribes had adopted and intermarried with blacks over generations of contact, historians say. Treaties signed after the Civil War required tribes to emancipate their slaves and either adopt them into their tribes or the U.S. government would relocate them. By the end of the 19th century, more than 20,000 Africans had been adopted into four of the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma –the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole, historians say. The Chickasaws refused to adopt blacks and the government failed to relocate them as promised. In the 1890s the Dawes Commissioncreated tribal membership rolls, preparing to divide up communally held tribal land. Based on appearance, many black Indians were listed as “freedmen” with no blood breakdown noted. Still later, some tribes revised their membership requirements to require a certificate of degree of Indian blood, making those descended from freedmen ineligible. Marilyn Vann, president of the descendants’ group, said Cherokee freedmen voted in tribal elections as recently as 1971. “We’re not wannabe people who are pretending to be Indian people or pretending to have Indian rights,” Vann said. “We have documents to prove who we are and we know who we are.” Citizenship requirementsMike Miller, spokesman for the Cherokee Nation, said the Cherokees as a sovereign nation determine their citizenship requirements, which includes an ancestor who traces back to the Dawes Rolls as a Cherokee. “What it boils down to is the Cherokee Nation has determined that to be a member of our Indian nation, you need to be at least part Indian,” he said. Miller acknowledged that the Dawes Rolls were probably flawed, but he said there is no recourse for descendants of freedmen who can trace their ancestry to a blood Cherokee some other way. “That’s a law. We can’t bend a law. It’s not at anyone’s discretion,” Miller said. The descendants understand today’s tribal leaders are not personally responsible for past discrimination, Vann said. “We’re not asking for an apology or reparations. We are asking for the same treatment as other people who are descendants of people on the Dawes Rolls,” Vann said. “What we want is what has been promised.” Kittles said the jury is still out on whether genetic testing like his will help the descendants of freedmen. He said he hopes it does. “For them to change the criteria by which you are a member of that group because of power and finances, that’s really sad,” Kittles said. “That has to be reconciled.”
Information provided To Jorge Estevez by Bobby Gonzalez (Taino).