Adopting racial ideologies that denigrated blackness was also part of a calculated strategy among some southern Native nations to preserve their sovereignty. In his microhistory of a Creek Indian family, Claudio Saunt argues that such an approach was “part cynical ploy, clever subterfuge, and painful compromise.” The risks and rewards of such tactics were particularly evident in the Jim Crow era as indigenous peoples fought to maintain a third space within a biracial South and a white supremacist nation. As Lowery states, “The relationship between Jim Crow and federal Indian policy may seem unexpected, but only if one expects that Indians belonged outside the framework of southern race relations.” Articulating Native distinctiveness often meant disarticulating themselves from blackness, sometimes repudiating family members in the process and producing bitter divides with high stakes.20
These realities complicate conventional visions of the South. Acknowledging the histories of Native southerners requires not only an understanding of the relationship between slavery and colonization, but also demands a relinquishment of romantic notions about villains and victims in favor of something much less satisfying, but much more accurate. Holding these ideas in permanent tension is, in my estimation, the best way to responsibly do histories of the South. The impulse to resolve them, to reconcile them, may in fact arise from the structures of power that brought such disparities and divides into being. These stories are unsettling and they are messy, but we should resist the urge to tidy up.
In response to such calls for revising and re-envisioning southern history, some southernists have complained that Native voices and traces are simply “not in the sources.” But those of us who have used some of those same sources beg to differ. As legendary Native South scholar Theda Perdue observed, “the scholarship is there” and if southern historians decide not to engage it, “they do so at their own peril.” Fully accounting for indigenous peoples’ histories would require southern studies scholars to not just add Indians to the mix but instead to reconceive of their narratives, stretching their limits in time, space, and category. If we acknowledge that we are all on Native ground, however, no other conclusion makes sense.21
‘The scholarship is there’ and if southern historians decide not to engage it, ‘they do so at their own peril.’
Integrating or centering indigenous stories in southern history does not mean displacing the very hard-won and important place of African American stories. Nor does it foreclose the experiences of Asian, Jewish, Latinx, or other southerners. The experiences of Central American immigrants to the South, for example, provide an opportunity to grapple with indigenous displacement as constitutive of southern history, since so many of these sojourners making the South their home are, in fact, also of indigenous ancestry. Neither should we dismiss or diminish the importance of the Civil War and Emancipation, which remain essential to understanding the region and its diverse peoples. Rather, I am urging an open acknowledgement that these stories were always deeply entangled with one another and should remain so in our analyses of them. In part, the institutional separation of subfields and the fetishization of some topics over others are to blame. As a result, it is often difficult to hold conflicting perspectives in mind simultaneously.22
These stories are unsettling and they are messy, but we should resist the urge to tidy up.
Take, for example, the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the foremost public intellectuals in the United States. In 2014, Coates, who grew up in a Baltimore neighborhood named for the Anishinaabe corn deity, published a provocative essay titled “The Case for Reparations.” He outlined the ways that race-based bondage, Jim Crow laws, separate-but-equal policies, and racist housing practices created and perpetuated structural inequalities for black Americans in the United States, with a particular emphasis on the legacies of slavery. He then asked readers to “imagine a new country” in which we engage in “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” Among the essay’s epigraphs is this anonymous 1861 quote, ostensibly from an enslaved or formerly enslaved person: “By our unpaid labor and suffering, we have earned the right to the soil, many times over and over, and now we are determined to have it.”23
While many reactions to Coates’s piece were predictably shrill denials of the practicality of reparations, what struck me was his silence on the legacies of colonialism. How was it that Coates could refer briskly to a nation founded on twin pillars of “black plunder” and “white democracy” without recognizing that these phenomena were enabled by and depended on the dispossession of North America’s Native peoples and their continuing erasure in public discourse?
Coates’s epigraph, his call for reparations, and the often-exclusionary efforts to reckon with the legacies of slavery demonstrate the importance of unsettling histories of the American South, with implications far beyond a particular region or nation-state. In Shona N. Jackson’s study of colonialism in the Caribbean, the settlers in question are of European descent, but also African and South Asian arrivants—a term used to refer to migrants in various states of un-freedom who also participated in the enterprise of colonialism. The latter two groups, in liberating Guyana from British rule and forging a new nation, subsequently articulated a mode of belonging that hinged on their labor in transforming (or, in American parlance, “improving”) the land. This process effectively recolonized the region’s indigenous peoples, in both rhetoric and reality. Jackson argues convincingly that “Creole material and metaphysical belonging (indigeneity) to the New World evolved through . . . the real and figurative displacement of Indigenous Peoples.” This model of belonging or indigenization through labor is strikingly reminiscent of both Coates’s epigraph and his analysis, in which the stolen labor of African-descended people earns them the right to claim indigenous lands, coded as full and equal citizenship within the modern nation-state. Though they may take place far afield from familiar southern landscapes, analyses of other colonial contexts, like Jackson’s, can and should be part of our conversations about what is unique about the South—and what is not—and why indigeneity matters.24
Centering the concerns of Native peoples can help us reorient ourselves to histories of the South, the nation, and the hemisphere in ways that challenge our familiar narratives and also help us to see these places in relationship to one another. Colonialism and slavery were not unique to the region we know as the South, although they evolved in distinct ways as a result of the Natives and newcomers who have inhabited it. Thinking hemispherically can illuminate connections heretofore obscured by our narrowly defined areas of specialty. Jackson’s work on “Creole Indigeneity,” for example, could be helpful in analyzing relationships between indigenous southerners in Indian Territory and the Exodusters who arrived with hopes of making the land their own. Troubling histories of the South means reckoning with invasions and evasions.
Centering the concerns of Native peoples can help us reorient ourselves to histories of the South, the nation, and the hemisphere in ways that challenge our familiar narratives and also help us to see these places in relationship to one another.
If we do not embrace, however uneasily, the complexities and contradictions of a full, deep, long, and startlingly diverse South, we not only engage in bad history, but we also continue the work of silence and erasure begun at colonization. By relegating Native communities to the margins of the South, we quite literally undermine the survival of those Native communities today, compounding the “paper genocide” that has long accompanied settler colonialism here and abroad. And we flatten southern history in the process, producing a perhaps more colorful tale than we once told but one that nevertheless fits into a teleological narrative and misrepresents us all.25
This essay first appeared in the Left/Right Issue (vol. 25, no. 3: Fall 2019).
ANGELA PULLEY HUDSON is professor of history at Texas A&M University. Her recent book is Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians (UNC Press, 2015). She coedits the Indians and Southern History series from the University of Alabama Press.
Header image: The Great Migration South, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30, 2008.