As a child, Alaina E. Roberts had little interest in what she considered “boring old people talk.” They were the stories of hardship, hope, and land that her family’s elders, descendants of Black and mixed race people enslaved by Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians, shared at reunions.
With her first book, “I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land,” Roberts, an assistant history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, combines her family’s story with the broader story of Black Freedmen, the progeny of enslaved people who’ve lived in Native nations for centuries, and continue to do so to this day.
In the late 1700s, some members of what’s known as the Five Tribes — the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole — enslaved Black people. Along with converting to Christianity and learning English, this was another way for Native tribes to adopt white Euro-American culture. Adjacency to whiteness, and trying to become more acceptable in the eyes of oppressors, has existed for more than 400 years.
Yet what most interested Roberts is what happened to formerly enslaved Black people in Indian Territory after Emancipation, and how that has defined her heritage, she says.
“When I first started this book as an undergrad, it was about identity and where am I going to be accepted,” Roberts told me in an interview. “Over time, I realized this is my history, whether the Choctaws and Chickasaws want to accept me and my family. They can’t deny that we, like many other Black and mixed-race people, share generations of life, traditions, and culture with them.”
That sometimes uneasy relationship has been making recent headlines. Some Black Freedmen in Wewoka, Okla., told BuzzFeed News that they were turned away by the Indian Health Service in Seminole Nation when they tried to get the COVID-19 vaccine because they do not have “citizenship by blood.” In a statement, Seminole Nation Chief Gregory P. Chilcoat said the nation “does not operate the Wewoka IHS Clinic, has absolutely no Policy oversight regarding the day-to-day operations of the Clinic and was in no way involved with administering COVID-19 vaccines.”
IHS is a federal agency, Chilcoat says, so Seminole freedman should seek proper recourse or remedy from the United States Government.” That response misses bigger issues, Roberts says.
“We can still see the effects of anti-Blackness because these are ideas that were encouraged by white Americans and Europeans for Native Americans to adopt and believe,” she says. “It’s really a direct result of the kind of narrative that I tell about Native nations taking on what I call ‘settler colonialism’ — these ideas about race, hierarchy among people of different races, and ideas about what makes one civilized.”
Since George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police last year, much has been written and said about a reckoning on white supremacy and systemic racism. Such probing discussions must also happen in Indian Country, Roberts says.
“I think this past summer and our current moment have put an interesting spin on my book because it examines what is racism and what does discrimination look like when it’s coming from a nonwhite person,” Roberts says.
“Last summer we saw Native people showing up for Black Lives Matter and examining the anti-Blackness in their tribal nations. This fall and winter and spring we’ve had attacks on Asian people, some perpetrated by Black people,” she says. “ Even Black people who are themselves discriminated against can also have these dangerous ideas about other nonwhite people.”
When the government brutally displaced Indian tribes along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, enslaved Black people were also uprooted. They, too, ended up in what would eventually become Oklahoma. Though Roberts was born and raised in California, her family has owned land in that state for six generations — “a homestead,” she writes, “for themselves after emancipation.” That’s the meaning behind the book’s title.
“It speaks to the core of Black people’s connection to land, which I think is not discussed enough. For people like my family, their claim to that land was ‘I’ve been here all the while,’ Roberts says. “‘I have made this my home through my community, my kinship, through the work I’ve done on this land. It’s important to me materially, but also spiritually.’”
So, too, are the stories Roberts once shunned as a child. Now she treasures those memories as heirlooms, and as a path to reckoning with history — both America’s and her own.