Storm Bear

Black History: The Native Americans

Filed By Storm Bear | April 14, 2008 12:23 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: gay cartoons and comics, Native American, slavery, small pox, webcomics

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The first Native American group encountered by Christopher Columbus were the Island Arawaks (more properly called the Taino) of Boriquen (Puerto Rico), the (Quisqueya) of the Dominican Republic, and the Cubanacan (of Cuba). It has been said that of the 250,000 to one million Island Arawaks living in 1492, only about 500 had survived by the middle of the 16th century, and that the group was considered extinct by the middle of the 17th century. However, DNA studies show that the genetic contribution of the Taino to that region continues, and the mitochondrial DNA studies of the Taino are said to show relationships to the Northern Indigenous Nations, such as Inuit and others.

European settlers brought infectious diseases against which the Native Americans had no natural immunity. Chicken pox and measles, though common and rarely fatal among Europeans, often proved deadly to Native Americans. Smallpox proved particularly deadly to Native American populations. Epidemics often immediately followed European exploration, sometimes destroying entire villages. While precise figures are difficult to arrive at, some historians estimate that up to 80% of some Native populations died due to European diseases.

In 1617-1619, smallpox wiped out 90% of the Massachusetts Bay Native Americans. As it had done elsewhere, the virus wiped out entire population groups of Native Americans. It reached Mohawks in 1634, Lake Ontario in 1636, and the lands of the Iroquois by 1679. During the 1770s, smallpox killed at least 30% of the West Coast Native Americans. Smallpox epidemics in 1780-1782 and 1837-1838 brought devastation and drastic depopulation among the Plains Indians. By 1832, the federal government established a smallpox vaccination program for Native Americans (The Indian Vaccination Act of 1832).

In the sixteenth century Spaniards and other Europeans brought horses to the Americas. Some of these animals escaped and began to breed and increase their numbers in the wild. Horses had previously migrated naturally to North America but the early American horse became game for the earliest humans and became extinct about 7,000 BC, just after the end of the last ice age. The re-introduction of the horse had a profound impact on Native American culture in the Great Plains of North America. As a new mode of travel the horse made it possible for some tribes to greatly expand their territories, exchange goods with neighboring tribes, and more easily capture game.

During the 17th century, Indian slavery, the enslavement of Native Americans by European colonists, was common. Many of these Native slaves were exported to off-shore colonies, especially the "sugar islands" of the Caribbean. Historian Alan Gallay estimates that from 1670-1715, British slave traders sold between 24,000 and 51,000 Native Americans from what is now the southern part of the U.S.

Slavery of Native Americans was organized in colonial and Mexican California through Franciscan missions, theoretically entitled to ten years of Native labor, but in practice maintaining them in perpetual servitude, until their charge was revoked in the mid-1830s. Following the 1847-1848 invasion by U.S. troops, Native Californians were enslaved in the new state from statehood in 1850 to 1867. Slavery required the posting of a bond by the slave holder and enslavement occurred through raids and a four-month servitude imposed as a punishment for Indian "vagrancy".

The Haida and Tlingit Indians who lived along the Southeast Alaska's coast were traditionally known as fierce warriors and slave-traders, raiding as far as California. Slavery was hereditary, the slaves being prisoners of war. Among some Pacific Northwest tribes, about a quarter of the population were slaves. Other slave-owning tribes of North America were, for example, Comanche of Texas, Creek of Georgia, the fishing societies, such as the Yurok, that lived along the coast from what is now Alaska to California, the Pawnee, and Klamath.

After 1800, the Cherokees and some other tribes started buying and using black slaves, a practice they continued after being relocated to Indian Territory in the 1830s.

The nature of slavery in Cherokee society often mirrored that of white slave-owning society. The law barred intermarriage of Cherokees and blacks, whether slave or free. Blacks who aided slaves were punished with one hundred lashes on the back. In Cherokee society, blacks were barred from holding office, bearing arms, and owning property, and it was illegal to teach blacks to read and write.

By contrast, the Seminoles welcomed into their nation African Americans who had escaped slavery (Black Seminoles).

There were historical treaties between the European Colonists and the Native American tribes requesting the return of any runaway slaves. For example, in 1726, the British Governor of New York exacted a promise from the Iroquois to return all runaway slaves who had joined up with them. This same promise was extracted from the Huron Natives in 1764 and from the Delaware Natives in 1765. There are also numerous accounts of advertisements requesting the return of African Americans who had married Native Americans or who spoke a Native American language. Individuals in some tribes owned African slaves; however, other tribes incorporated African Americans, slave or freemen, into the tribe. This custom among the Seminoles was part of the reason for the Seminole Wars where the European Americans feared their slaves fleeing to the Natives. The Cherokee Freedmen and tribes such as the Lumbee in North Carolina include African American ancestors.

After 1800, the Cherokees and some other tribes started buying and using black slaves, a practice they continued after being relocated to Indian Territory in the 1830s. The nature of slavery in Cherokee society often mirrored that of white slave-owning society. The law barred intermarriage of Cherokees and blacks, whether slave or free. Blacks who aided slaves were punished with one hundred lashes on the back. In Cherokee society, blacks were barred from holding office, bearing arms, and owning property, and it was illegal to teach blacks to read and write.


When I went to school, we were never taught Black History. We never learned about the Black leaders, the long, agonizing history that brought most Blacks to America. Those atrocities were glossed over in favor of mindlessly boring topics like the X Y Z Affair.

This series of cartoons will review Black history as told from a Black mother to an interracial child. This series will be ugly, course, horrific and truthful. I will mostly abandon the commentary for an article on Black history.

This series is not about Obama or Hillary. I want to you to try to imagine how Black families tell their children of the atrocities their ancestors, all of them, suffered because of the color of their skin. Try to imagine how Black families counsel their children when someone calls them "nigger" for the first time. Can you imagine the bone crushing emotion that must well up? Can you imagine the agony, frustration and anger?

Can you imagine being the Black preacher who tries to paint a picture of a just God every Sunday? Especially in a country that claims where the notion of racism is a thing of the past, the job is difficult.

These strips may at times be entertaining and sometimes they may not - mostly not.

I don't want you to laugh so hard you cry, I want you to cry so hard you do something about it.

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Thanks for covering a little-mentioned subject, Storm Bear.

The Cherokees are still thrashing out some of these "black history" issues. At one point, the tribe extended membership to Freedmen, blacks who had once been enslaved by Cherokees, some of whom had married into the tribe. However, in recent times, tribal membership of Freedmen descendants who did not have any Cherokee ancestry became an issue, as did membership of whites who became members by marrying Cherokees, often to obtain tribal benefits. So the tribe recently adopted the policy of dropping from the rolls all Freedmen who have no Cherokee ancestry. The decision has been controversial, and is still being argued.

I am part Cherokee myself, going back to a West Virginia ancestor who married a Cherokee woman in the late 1700s.

In my historical novel "One Is the Sun," I wrote extensively about slavery in the First Nations world, which was practiced for many centuries before white Europeans introduced their own version of the practice. The great pyramid cultures of Mexico were largely built on slave labor; to obtain slaves, they traded widely with what they called the "wild peoples" of North America, as far north as Great Slave Lake in Canada, which was a traditional summer rendezvous place for slave traders. Lightweight but valuable goods like tropical feathers, peyote and medicinal herbs were carried clear into Canada and traded for slave children, who were marched back to Mexico. Later on, the horse -- that hot new commodity -- became a valued item of exchange for slaves. Horses reached some Canadian tribes by 1700.

However, the practice of slavery was shunned and abhorred by some of the North American tribes. Or they practiced a modified form of it, which was to enslave a person for a term of five years, then grant emancipation. The freed individual could then leave, or marry into the tribe. Many former slaves did the latter, since they had no way of re-locating their long lost families. The movies "Dances With Wolves" gives a fairly accurate portrayal of this practice, in the story of the white woman that Lt. Dunbar finds living with the band of Lakotah that he befriends.

Another reason for a modified form of slavery was to provide for genetic fresh air within a group. The First Peoples were aware of the dangers of inbreeding, and the value of outbreeding, because they had seen these things in their work with domesticating animals and plants. So their societies were mostly based on the clan, and the need to marry out of your clan, since you were related to your clan members.

Sooner or later, in a tribal band of a couple hundred individuals, you ran out of people that you could safely marry. So many tribes adopted the practice of raiding outsiders (including whites and blacks) and capturing young children, which they then raised for themselves, or traded to other tribes. When the children grew up, they married into the tribe. In my novel I wrote about one slave girl who started her life this way, and was bought by a Medicine Woman who freed her and made her an apprentice.

This reverence for genetic diversity gave many of the tribes a liberal and accepting attitude about people who were ethnically "different" from themselves. This worldview made it hard for them to understand the white men who came along with their hatred and contempt for anyone with a brown skin.

In short, slavery in the First Nation world is an equally grim subject, and a complicated one, but it bears little resemblance to slavery as practiced by European Christians, who based their attitudes towards slavery on the accumulated religious beliefs of what allegedly made north Europeans "superior" to other people.