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Sunday, September 22, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Between two worlds: Blacks seek status as Seminoles

The Associated Press

WEWOKA, Okla. — Wilburt Cudjoe holds a piece of his identity in a black, wrinkled hand.

The white plastic card says he is a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. It also says he is the descendant of African slaves, people who escaped plantations in the 1700s to join the Seminoles.

The card does not say Cudjoe, 78, is an Indian by blood. And that makes his eyes turn sad.

Tribal leaders say Cudjoe and 1,500 other black Seminoles who cannot trace at least one-fourth of their ancestry to native people may not sit on the tribal council. And those without at least one-eighth native blood, they say, are ineligible to vote in tribal elections or share in the $42 million Congress allotted in the early 1990s as compensation for running the Seminoles out of Florida more than 100 years earlier.

The dispute, now tied up in federal courts, is ripping the Seminole Nation apart, threatening to break a bond that spans four centuries. It's a battle of race, money and the right of a sovereign nation to decide who is an Indian.

"We were just like brothers and sisters until this little money come up," says Cudjoe, a small, soft-spoken man. "They are forgetting their history. Their past is entwined with the blacks."

Unlike other tribes, the Seminoles were not a distinct people before the white man arrived on the coasts of North America. Their origins lie in small bands of refugees — members of the Creeks and about five other tribes who escaped white invaders by fleeing into the empty swamps of Florida in the mid-1700s. Soon, escaped slaves from plantations in South Carolina and Georgia joined them for the chance to live free.

Together, they struggled to survive in the Florida swamps, built communities, fought invading U.S. soldiers and evolved into a distinct people.

Intermarriage and time have blurred the lineage of many Indian tribes. Black blood flows strong through the Narragansetts in Rhode Island, the Lumbees of North Carolina, the northeastern Pequots of Connecticut. And as bingo halls and casinos enrich some once-poor tribes, there have been frequent disputes over who has enough native blood to qualify as an Indian.

"An Afro-Indian tribe"

What makes the Seminoles different is that blacks — "estelusti" in the Seminole language of Muscogee — were part of the tribe from the beginning, owning land, serving as interpreters and negotiators with the whites, teaching the others how to grow rice.

"It was an Afro-Indian tribe, a multiethnic reliance," said anthropologist Joseph Opala of James Madison University in Virginia.

Even their name says so. "Seminole" is a corruption of the Spanish word "cimarron," meaning "runaway," he said.

In Florida, the Seminoles still could not completely evade the U.S. Army, which was intent on forcing tribes throughout the American South to move west of the Mississippi in the 1820s and 1830s to make room for white settlers. Hundreds of Seminoles agreed to leave and were taken by boat and barge to Oklahoma.

Some bands battled on deep in the swamps. Today, their ancestors make up the Seminole Tribe of Florida — a tribe that never has signed a peace treaty with the U.S. government.

But for the Seminoles who moved to the golden prairies of Oklahoma, life changed quickly.

Black Seminoles found that their knowledge of rice cultivation and their resistance to swamp diseases, so important to the tribe in Florida, no longer had value. Worse, the federal government initially put the Seminoles under the control of the Creeks, another transplanted tribe. The Creeks held blacks as slaves, Opala said; and by the mid-1850s, the Seminoles followed their example, enslaving black members of their tribe.

During the Civil War, several tribes including the Seminoles sided with the Confederacy. After the war, in 1866, the federal government imposed a new treaty on the Seminoles, reducing their land holdings in Oklahoma and restoring blacks to equal status in the tribe. About that time, some black Seminoles who had fled to Mexico to escape slave hunters were recruited by the U.S. Army as scouts, serving during the Indian wars of the late 1800s; several were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Relations between black and blood Seminoles were strained during the long era of segregation in America, when, even in Indian territory, blacks went to separate schools.

But for the past 40 years, the Seminoles have lived together mainly in harmony — until the federal money came.

"There's no such thing as a black Seminole," says Wayne Shaw, chairman of the Seminole general council.

Since the $42 million arrived, that opinion has been heard often in Seminole County, red-dirt scrubland where many of the 15,000 blood and black Seminoles live side by side in houses and shacks, the black Seminoles outnumbered by a ratio of 9-to-1.

From the start, the tribal council decided only blood Seminoles were entitled to a share of the money, which it doles out in small amounts to tribal members who apply for help with expenses such as home repair and school tuition.

Two years ago, the tribal council formalized the distinction between black and blood, changing the tribe's constitution to double the blood requirement for tribal council representation to one-fourth Indian ancestry.

Generally, federal law gives Indian tribes the right to decide who is a member and who is not. However, every tribe's freedom of action is limited by its treaties with the United States and by its own constitution, which can't be changed without federal approval.

Who's the chief?

The treaty of 1866 made black Seminoles full members; and the federal government has refused to ratify the constitutional amendments that effectively banished black Seminoles from the tribe.

The Seminole Nation sued and, in the meantime, held a new election for tribal positions, with only blood Seminoles allowed to vote. Ken Chambers, a half-blood Seminole whose followers wear T-shirts that say "Seminole by Blood," was elected chief.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs still recognizes the former chief, Jerry Haney, and is withholding the compensation money from the tribe.

In May, a standoff between the two chiefs led to fistfights among their supporters.

Chambers insists that when the blacks fled to Florida to escape their white masters, the Seminoles took them in, but that the two cultures never truly mixed.

Black Seminoles don't speak Muscogee, he says. They don't know how to cook blue bread or grape dumplings or sofkey, a corn dish similar to hominy. They don't join the blood Indians as they welcome another harvest by stomp dancing and singing into the night.

Blacks never had equal rights within the tribe, Chambers contends, and aren't entitled to them now.

In Indian country — a smattering of meeting grounds and gambling halls about 60 miles east of Oklahoma City — blood Indians say money isn't really the issue. Rather, it's preserving their heritage and their right as a sovereign nation to decide who is a member and who is not.

The few tribal elders fluent in Muscogee are dying, and intermarriage and urbanization are weakening the cultural bonds of the younger generations.

"If you want to keep the bloodlines going, you got to keep 'em separate," says Jerry Harjo, who serves up fry bread and bean soup for the tribal lunch program. "The way we're heading now, the Indian tribe will probably not even exist."

Lewis Johnson, assistant curator of the Seminole Nation Museum, says the tribe is not trying to rewrite history — it's just that the common fight for freedom that brought blacks and native people together 200 years ago doesn't apply anymore.

Roosevelt Davis, 75, fell through a hole in his kitchen floor the other day. The roof on his Wewoka shack, built on land allotted to his family in 1906, is caving in on his head. But he can't apply for tribal money to get his house fixed because he is a black Seminole, tracing his lineage to the warrior Chief Billy Bowlegs, after whom a town in Seminole County is named.

Davis' daughter, Sylvia, represented her black Seminole band on the tribal council until two years ago, when other tribal leaders decided she didn't have enough Indian blood to qualify as Seminole.

"We are being judged by the color of our skin," she says, crying.

Sylvia Davis sued the federal government in 1994 after the tribe denied her $125 request for her son's school clothes. The U.S. Department of Interior is trustee of the judgment fund.

Davis' attorney, Jon Velie of Norman, says the case, on appeal for the second time in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is purely about racism.

A family's history

Cudjoe, the 78-year-old black Seminole, believes his great-great-grandfather came on a slave ship from the west coast of Africa. He was sold to a rice plantation, then escaped to Florida and joined the Seminoles in the late 1700s. Two of Cudjoe's brothers, twins who sat on the tribal council before their deaths, once traveled from Oklahoma to Sierra Leone, where they were honored by the president as stolen members of the Gullah tribe.

His lips curl into a smile as he looks at a yellowed photograph of his grandfather, Witty, who is said to have lived to 116 on the Seminole County grassland the government gave him.

His ancestor may have been black, but he was very much a Seminole, Cudjoe says. He spoke Muscogee. He ate fry bread and Indian corn. He passed on the creed of the black Seminoles to his grandchildren.

Wilburt Cudjoe still owns 72 acres of the Oklahoma land where his ancestors farmed cotton and peanuts. He takes his great-grandchildren fishing there in a stocked pond. He tells them: Never sell the land. Never forget the past.

"I'm of the Seminole tribe," Cudjoe says. "I don't care what nobody says."

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