The fact that many Cherokees owned slaves is another sad chapter in American history. Members of all the Five Civilized Tribes, located in the southern US: Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole owned slaves, with Cherokees owning the most. But this sad truth is also a complicated one. Native Americans had been oppressed by European Americans themselves. For around two centuries by the time this photo was taken, Native tribes had been decimated, some extinguished completely, by disease, violence and hardship at the hands of European Americans. Around the time of the Civil War, many in the Five Civilized Tribes, living cheek by jowl with their white neighbors, sought to assimilate, to blend in with the dominant culture, to survive. And I’m sure some Native slave holders just sought their own gain. So, it’s no surprise that southern tribes joined the Confederate side during the Civil War. They were adopting southern culture of the day. And all of this is, of course, no excuse. The saddest element for me is the psychological/emotional one; when the oppressed becomes and oppressor. I wrote about this period in our history in my poetry collection Split the Crow. The following poem appears in the second half of the book, which begins around 1830 and moves into the present.
Deed of Gift
None would eat the flesh
cooked by a Cherokee woman with child
or follow the path she traveled,
so fearful her power.
But a coal black slave carrying low
the property of an Indian?
Not a cruel man but fond of whiskey
and gambling. The deed, drawn up
while he was drunk on lust
for the trader’s daughter, specified:
silk scarves, one slave woman
and her unborn, three pistols.
A Cherokee child belonged to his mother’s
clan. Her own line died inside the rank belly
of a ship carrying live/stock, her line severed like a neck
on the auction block. The women warned her
off speckled trout: it would mottle the baby;
kept her from strawberries to avoid the stain.
But their care knew portions. All would eat her
corn mash with venison. Even when her belly bulged over the pots,
they called her master’s table fine. Like white folks
none offered to sing her baby home.