In the late 1700s, some members of what are known as the Five Tribes – the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole – enslaved black people. In addition to converting to Christianity and learning English, it was another way for native tribes to embrace white Euro-American culture. The adjacency of whiteness, and trying to become more acceptable to oppressors, has been around for over 400 years.
Yet what interests Roberts most is what happened to the once enslaved blacks on Indian territory after emancipation, and how that defined his legacy, she says.
“When I started this book as an undergrad student, it was all about identity and where am I going to be accepted,” Roberts told me in an interview. “Over time, I realized this was my story, that the Choctaws and Chickasaws wanted to accept me and my family. They cannot deny that we, like many other Black and Métis people, share generations of life, traditions and culture with them.
This sometimes difficult relationship has recently made headlines. Some black freedmen from Wewoka, Oklahoma, told BuzzFeed News they were turned away by the Seminole Nation’s Indian Health Service when they tried to get the COVID-19 vaccine because they didn’t had no “citizenship by blood”. In a declaration, Seminole Nation Chief Gregory P. Chilcoat said the nation “does not operate the Wewoka IHS Clinic, has absolutely no political oversight regarding the day-to-day operations of the clinic, and is in no way involved in the administration of COVID-19 vaccines “.
IHS is a federal agency, Chilcoat says, so the freedman Seminole should seek appropriate recourse or recourse with the United States government. That answer misses bigger issues, says Roberts.
“We can still see the effects of anti-Black because these are ideas that were encouraged by white Americans and Europeans for Native Americans to embrace and believe them,” she says. “It really is a direct result of the kind of story I tell about Indigenous nations grappling with what I call ‘settler colonialism’ – these ideas about race, the hierarchy between people of different races. and ideas on what makes someone civil. “
Since the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department last year, much has been written and said about the calculation of white supremacy and systemic racism. Such in-depth discussions are also to take place in the Indian country, says Roberts.
“I think last summer and our current moment gave my book an interesting twist as it examines what racism is and what discrimination looks like when it comes from a non-white person,” said Roberts. .
“Last summer we saw The natives introduce themselves for Black Lives Matter and examining anti-blackness in their tribal nations. This fall, winter and spring we have had attacks on Asians, some by black people, ”she says. “Even black people themselves discriminated against can also have these dangerous ideas about other non-white people. “
When the government brutally displaced Indian tribes along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, enslaved blacks were also uprooted. They too found themselves in what would become Oklahoma. Although Roberts was born and raised in California, her family has owned land in that state for six generations – “property,” she writes, “for themselves after emancipation.” This is the meaning of the title of the book.
“It speaks to the heart of Black’s connection to the land, which I think is not discussed enough. For people like my family, their claim to this land was “I’ve been here all this time,” says Roberts. “’I have made it my home thanks to my community, my relatives, thanks to the work I have done on this land. It is important for me materially, but also spiritually.
The same goes for the stories Roberts once avoided as a child. Now, she treasures those memories as heirlooms and as a way to reckon with history – both America’s and her own.