Smarty Pants Podcast

How the Black Creek Lost Their Citizenship

Caleb Gayle on a complicated tale of belonging

By Stephanie Bastek | July 8, 2022
Chickasaw Freedmen filing on allotments at Tishomingo (W. P. Campbell Collection/Oklahoma Historical Society
Chickasaw Freedmen filing on allotments at Tishomingo (W. P. Campbell Collection/Oklahoma Historical Society

The Creek chief Cow Tom was born around 1810 along the west coast of Florida. He survived the Trail of Tears, served as an interpreter between the Creeks and the U.S. government, and earned the title of Mikko, or chief, for his leadership of Creek refugees during the Civil War. In 1866, he served as an adviser during the nation’s treaty negotiations with the U.S. government. This treaty, in addition to banning slavery in the five First Nations who were party to it, granted full citizenship in the Creek Nation to Black Creeks who had been accepted into the community after marriage or had been previously enslaved by their Indian owners. Mikko Cow Tom was one of those Black Creeks. When he died in 1874, he bequeathed his considerable assets, including grist mills, cattle, and land, to his family—along with Creek citizenship and a degree of social prominence that was exceedingly rare for a Black family of the time. But in 1979, the Creek Nation expelled its Black members, and to this day refuses to recognize their citizenship. In his new book, We Refuse to Forget, journalist and Northeastern University professor Caleb Gayle tells the complex story of the Creek Nation’s ongoing reckoning with identity.

Go beyond the episode:

The Dawes Commission, photographed in 1904 at Tishomingo (Oklahoma Historical Society)

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