On February 25, Professor Barbara Krauthamer spoke at the first program in the Division of United States' series, "New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity." The series features more junior Scholar-presenters and pairs them with commentators who are senior experts in their field.

The paradox presented by Krauthamer was that in the years after the Civil War, the possibility of freedom for one oppressed American group became synonymous with curtailed autonomy for another group. The end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment did not mean freedom for the more than 10,000 African-American slaves held by the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee and Seminole nations: those nations were considered sovereign entities and were therefore outside the reach of American law. The five tribes had sided with the Confederacy, however, which the U.S. government used as an excuse to claim that its previous treaties with the tribes were no longer valid. The government's goal, which was ultimately achieved, was to negotiate new treaties that stripped the tribes of over half of their land and much of their sovereignty.

In addition, the treaties not only mandated the freeing of the slaves but required the tribes to accept the freedpeople as citizens. That, Krauthamer said, was unacceptable to the tribes, which saw the government's action as an abrogation of the tribes' sovereign right to determine who could and could not be citizens. Many of the freedpeople, however, wished to become citizens of the tribes rather than of the United States. They argued that they belonged in Native American society far more than they belonged anywhere else and said, in the words of one document Krauthamer quoted, that they had "lived with the Indians all the days of our life and do not know the rules of no body else but the Indians." They had grown up with the culture of the tribes. Even after they were freed, for example, many African-American women living among Native Americans continued to cook—and conceive of gender roles more broadly—in the same manner as their Native American neighbors.

Krauthamer emphasized the way in which the meaning of freedom changes depending on who does the defining. The former slaves argued their right to the freedom accorded by citizenship; the tribes, their right to the freedom to set the terms of citizenship for themselves. The new treaties with the United States established procedures for granting citizenship but did not mandate immediate citizenship. While the tribes abolished slavery, they ignored the citizenship procedures. The result was that for decades the freedpeople suffered the absence of legal protection. When the United States began to push the tribes to abolish collective ownership, for example, the freedpeople were given smaller land allotments than were tribe members. As non-citizens under Native American law, they had no recourse in day-to-day situations such as occurred if their property on the reservations was stolen. Many of the freedpeople were caught in this dilemma for 50 years, fully belonging neither in the United States nor in the Native American nations.

Professor Jill Norgren noted that Krauthamer's work offers important commentary on "the law and politics of inclusion and exclusion," as well as a new understanding of imperialism in the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Norgren placed the quest for freedpeople's citizenship in the context of the historic struggle of other groups, such as women, for full citizenship in the United States, as well as in the context of ongoing assaults by the American government on the sovereignty of the Native American tribes. She pointed to the inaugural addresses of U.S. presidents as merely one piece of evidence indicating that both Native Americans and women were either ignored or patronized by the American government throughout much of U.S. history. The infamous Supreme Court Dred Scott decision of 1856, holding that African Americans could not be citizens, for example, also referred, in passing, to Native Americans as "uncivilized."

Professor Frederick Hoxie commented that Krauthamer's work reflects the new direction in historical analysis, which favors explorations of identity-formation and community rather than a focus on U.S. history as exemplifying progress and a steady march toward democracy. The new historiography does not view the United States as progressing organically but sees its history as one that reflects patterns of power and force as well as the relationship between communities. He raised the question of how the experiences of freedmen and women in Indian territory differed from the experiences of their counterparts in the South. In both cases, he reminded the audience, there was a lack of clarity about the actual rights guaranteed by emancipation and widespread opposition to rights for African Americans, similarly based on claims of local culture and long-held behavior patterns. The history of rights in the United States has at best been uneven, and was – and is – one of struggle.

Drafted by Ann Chernicoff and Philippa Strum

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129