A True Story of Black Creeks in “We Refuse to Forget” – Chicago Review of Books


In 1830, President Andrew Jackson, a former Army general with the nickname “Indian Killer,” signed into law one of the most cruel pieces of legislation ever aimed at an Indigenous people, the “Indian Removal Act.” Over sixty thousand Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek were forced to flee their lands, centuries-old dwelling places now under new names like Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee. They set out upon—in hunger, desperation, and fear—what would go on to be known as “The Trail of Tears,” a forced, disease-haunted march into the wilderness west of the Mississippi. 

Several decades after the Creek took up residence in their appointed land (today known as Oklahoma), they signed a beneficial treaty with the U.S. government. In addition to the establishment of their own government, it was decided that all Creek Freedman, those emancipated Creeks of Black descent, should be granted official tribal citizenship, including voting rights and portions of future annuities and land allotments. This state of equanimity lasted more or less intact until 1979, when tribal leaders, with the support of Washington, removed Black Creeks’ citizenship, and in one stroke of the pen severed the lines of ancestry connecting them to revered past chiefs, and effectively blotted them not only from the annals of history but from the once-rich pages of their own understood identity.

Caleb Gayle’s We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power tells this story of Black Creeks. Fashioned from reportage, scholarship, personal memoir, and protest against the insidiousness of white supremacy, Gayle’s book details the lives of remarkable individuals like Cow Tom, the Black chief who bravely led his people out of the horrors of the “Trail of Tears” and into a land filled with something like hope, and some key, white architects of ‘Indian’ policy and political manipulation—men like U.S. senators Benjamin Hawkins and Henry Dawes who are answerable for a great deal of irreparable damage.

Caleb Gayle’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Guernica, and other publications. He was recently named a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies. He is a professor at Northeastern University. I had the pleasure of speaking to him recently via Zoom. Our conversation has been edited for length.

Ryan Asmussen   

In the book you write about the differing ways of understanding what civilization is, depending on who’s wielding that word. Certainly, from the perspective of the enslaved and Indigenous, the, scare quotes, ‘civilizing’ goals of U.S. policies read little more than paths to dominance.

Caleb Gayle

Scare quotes are very good to use here. For me, civilization has been more about the societal tendencies we have to neatly sort people into categories they didn’t create, categories that flatten identity in ways that make it easier for those who oftentimes are white, male, and straight to have their way. That’s what civilization was in the United States with respect to Blacks and the Indigenous. The book gets into the historical complexities of how that happened, what that looked like, and the effects of it that are so harmful, but we still do it today when we decide what is normal and not normal, when we decide what’s appropriate and not appropriate without taking into consideration the ways in which all of us experience life. 

Ryan Asmussen   

Which is linked directly to nineteenth-century artificial manipulations, those allotments and enrollments you talk about, how the government’s census taking, for example, was just another way to split families and reinforce methods of control. My favorite quote from the book apropos of this is “[T]here’s nothing more American than struggling to fit all [your] complexity into boxes you did not create in the first place.”

Caleb Gayle

I’ll give you a great example from my own life. When I was a kid in school, I thought for sure my folks were uncivilized. I think every kid who comes from an immigrant household, who brings food to school that is germane to the society in which they grew up, or the home in which they were raised, feels themselves to be unkempt because their food might smell different, might be flavored differently. I became ‘the other’ when I brought ackee and saltfish, Jamaican jerk chicken, or breadfruit to school for lunch. When the kids and teachers would comment on it, it made me feel like, if I didn’t let go of that and pick up the ham sandwich or the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I might never feel a part of this society. The ‘civilizing influence,’ we still see in very pernicious and subtle ways, about choosing not to recognize or, in some cases, choosing to castigate.

Ryan Asmussen

Ultimately, it’s a question of identity. Who are we? Who gets to make that call? This is perhaps an unfair question, but why is it that historically there’s been such a fixation on blood purity? Why do we so quickly dispense with the beauty of nuance?

Caleb Gayle

Nuance can be hard, right? Nuance requires that second- and third-level order of thinking. I will never put myself in a position of such deft experience with history that I don’t fall prey to missing nuance. Blood purity is the most fictitious way in which we can explain our way to understand divisions of race and characteristics associated with it. There is nothing really in my blood, Ryan, that is too dissimilar from yours; it’s that people have decided we need to explain why it is that there are Black people as a blunt instrument of categorization, right? Why are black people doing x, y, and z? There have been those who have said, ‘Well, even though we know this is pseudoscience, it is close enough to what we feel like could be the truth to explain it away.’ People who are deeply unscientific policymakers, who don’t care much about science, can explain things for the aims of marginalizing folks even further.

Ryan Asmussen

It strikes me that the Civil War, as much as the “Trail of Tears,” did as much or more damage to Black and Indigenous people than is commonly understood. The War was the primary creator of the division in the Creek Nation, in time separating Upper from Lower Creek, paving the way for future division-making  between Black Creek and so-called ‘purer’ Creek. Would you fill in a little bit of that history for us?

Caleb Gayle

You know, when you hear great historians like Eric Foner or Khalil Muhammad talk about the Civil War, they make it a point to start before we imagine the different sides, to center things on the fact that, first and foremost, this was a war about race and slavery. I think the reason I say this is, in part, because I’m also speaking to my former self as a junior high school student, the young man who was taught about the ‘War of Northern Aggression,’ that the war was over questions of economy, or questions of the persistence of federalism. The real question was whether we as a nation were going to retain this practice of slavery that was incredibly lucrative, not just for the South but for many in the North. Were we going to allow Black folks to be people within this republic or not? So, yes, in the end, this war fundamentally divided the Upper and Lower. Some of the Lower Creeks affiliated themselves with the Confederates and did fight on their behalf, and this was used as a blunt instrument against them. It resulted in the repositioning and re-situating of certain treaties that were signed before nullification such that the Creeks had to come back to the table and renegotiate new ones. But we shouldn’t forget the context.

Ryan Asmussen   

Andrew Jackson and his government had begun the process of separation and containment through his “Indian Removal Act,” forcibly and murderously dispersing the entire Five Nations. Then the Civil War started and maintained this work of isolation and doubting of identities. It wasn’t enough that the tribes were sent scattered, the agents of white supremacy had to continue splintering them further.

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Caleb Gayle

And then the salivation of those on the East coast who wanted to see greater prosperity and opportunity as people moved West. That further splintered people, further marginalized them, relegated them to even smaller ownerships of land that forced them into future reselling of said land at a lower cost. It did just ripple like that.

Ryan Asmussen 

One of those moments in the book where I was really forced to stop and think ‘Why am I surprised by this,’ concerns the people who moved West. When I was in elementary school, they were called ‘settlers.’ But you point out that, with respect to this now-Oklahoma territory, they were in reality “illegal immigrants” forcing their way onto Native lands given to them by the U.S. government. It’s like a screwdriver wedging its way into wood, eventually cracking it to splinters. This invasive, prolonged process of separation and more separation. Empowered white settlers arrive and take over because they can, entirely self-assured in their ‘natural’ rights.

Caleb Gayle

Yes, and we canonize them in Oklahoma. We call them Sooners. You know, here’s one thing that I didn’t put in the book that I think might help your readers understand about how we venerate these people. In fourth grade at Victory Christian School, we learned Oklahoma history. We read tons of books, portions of The Grapes of Wrath. We also dressed up like the settlers. It was fun times. We acted-out an Oklahoma land run on the back lot of the school. We had wagons and ran out and decided ‘This is going to be my claim.’ We measured out how much portion of land we had, and we sat there and we owned it. We learned about the history, as it turns out, through a very myopic point-of-view. We recreated it in a way that completely obliterated any of the Indigenous and Black lives that once lived there. The settlers were pioneering not necessarily in terms of their bravery, in their going to what they considered the great unknown, but in their possession of a pioneering audacity that could assume they owned that land by fiat.

Ryan Asmussen   

What I would call ‘The Great Betrayal’ of 1979 was especially heartbreaking after newfound Creek sovereignty in 1970 under President Nixon. Would you talk about the kind of pain that was introduced by Claude Cox that today still lingers in litigation?

Caleb Gayle

In 1979 Claude Cox, the chief of the Creeks, ushered in a revised constitution that limited the aperture for people who could claim their history in the Creek nation, who could claim identity and citizenship. It winnowed that aperture for those who, as we talked about earlier, had a lesser level of Creek blood purity than their Blackness would allow. All of a sudden, you could become too Black to be Creek. But Creek is a nation, not a race. The second that blood purity was added to the mix, Blackness became dilutive not additive, and so some people became what they never thought they were before. In the history of the Creek Nation, once you became Creek it didn’t matter who your parents were, unlike in the United States where being a son of a slave made you a slave. In the Nation you could be a son of a slave but still Creek. So, for these people their history was taken from them, along with their claim to the citizenship that went with it. For almost two decades Black Creeks have been trying to claw back their history, trying to regain entrance, and trying to get people to realize the law of the treaty of 1866, which entitled many of these Black folks to citizenship. They’re waging a battle that all of us need to take part in every day, to remember, to refuse to forget. These people don’t come with a ton of fanfare. They’re not on CNN every day. They are deciding of their own volition to keep their story alive. It’s the decision to make memory and remembrance a radical act. There is a legal battle, but there’s also this larger one, probably just as difficult and just as intricate, if not more, the refusal to forget these stories, and to hold that history as part of their identity.

Nonfiction
We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power
By Caleb Gayle
Riverhead Books

Published June 07, 2022



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