According to the terms of the Removal treaties signed with the Five Civilized Tribes, each tribe had complete control over its local government, judiciary, and educational system in its new nation in Indian Territory. Both the Choctaw and Chickasaw adopted constitutional governments modeled after that of the United States, with a principal chief and other executive officers, a general council, and a system of courts. All of the positions were elected, political interest was high, and the local press kept voters well informed on the issues. The Choctaw and Chickasaw also had a national schooling system. While some elite Indian families sent their children east to attend private boarding schools, most children received their education from members of their own community.
Despite their adoption of Anglo-American systems of government and education, the Choctaw and Chickasaw continued their traditional system of communal land tenure. Tribe members could hunt, fish, and cut timber anywhere outside of town limits. Cultivated land was surrounded by fences so that cattle and other livestock could freely roam the public lands. Most tribe members settled on small plots of land and engaged in subsistence farming. In addition, a group of Native Americans owned black slaves and used them to cultivate large plantations dedicated to growing cotton and foodstuffs. Chickasaw Robert Love owned and operated two Red River plantations worked by more than two hundred slaves. Robert M. Jones, a Choctaw planter, owned five Red River plantations, more than five hundred slaves, and a number of steamboats.
The Choctaw and Chickasaw adopted slave codes to control their black chattel. These laws were very strict, forbidding slaves from owning property, holding political office, or marrying Native Americans. Anyone caught harboring runaway slaves or teaching abolitionism faced severe punishment. Like white slaveholders, some Indians were cruel and physically assaulted their slaves, while others seldom resorted to violence, preferring a paternalistic approach to master-slave relations. By the time of the Civil War, then, the Choctaw and Chickasaw had developed a slaveholding elite that backed the Confederacy.
As a result of that official support for the southern states, the federal government included Indian Territory in its Reconstruction policy. In 1866 the United States forced the Indian nations to sign new treaties requiring the sale of “surplus” land to the federal government. In addition, the Native Americans had to adopt their former slaves as citizens or have them removed from their territory. The Choctaw in particular resisted the end of slavery: the Freedmen’s Bureau received reports that they refused to tell their former slaves that they were now free and that some Choctaw killed their ex-slaves rather than free them. US representatives told the Choctaw Council that unless the former slaves received full citizenship rights in the Choctaw nation, they would be relocated at Choctaw expense to the “Leased District,” which the United States had recently purchased. Most Choctaw initially preferred Removal, but the tribe’s chief argued that relocation so close to the Choctaw nation might attract a flood of African American migrants from the Deep South. After a debate that lasted almost two decades, the tribe finally adopted its former slaves and their descendants and gave them full citizenship rights—equality before the law in civil and criminal cases, equal educational facilities, eligibility for any political office in the nation except principal chief and district chief, and land on which to establish homesteads.
The Chickasaw proved even more resistant to granting former slaves full tribal membership. An 1866 treaty between the Chickasaw and the US government declared that the former slaves would be removed from the Chickasaw nation within two years of the treaty’s ratification if the Chickasaw Council so demanded. However, US officials refused to abide by the terms of the agreement, prompting the Chickasaw to argue that the federal government had never intended to hold up its end of the bargain. The Chickasaw remained intransigent and never agreed to adopt their ex-slaves; as a result, the former Chickasaw slaves and their descendants spent more than forty years without civil rights or legal protection.
- Angie Debo, And Still the Waters Run (1940)
- Daniel F. Littlefield Jr., The Chickasaw Freedmen: A People without a Country (1980)
- Murray R. Wickett, Contested Territory: Whites, Native Americans, and African Americans in Oklahoma, 1865–1907 (2000)