You are here: Home / News & Events

News & Events

Introducing a New Feature, Field Dispatches! by Kristen Epps

Beginning this month, Muster is launching an exciting new feature called Field Dispatches. We have recruited a team of talented correspondents—each with a different historical focus and perspective—who will write posts that provide fresh insight into the Civil War era. In each dispatch, correspondents will share thoughts on research, teaching, current events, pop culture, and other topics to build on the excellent discussions we already enjoy in The Journal of the Civil War Era and on the blog.

Our correspondents are: Martha S. Jones, James Marten, Maria Angela Diaz, Michael E. Woods, Hilary N. Green, Christopher Hayashida-Knight, Niels Eichhorn, and Nick Sacco. To find out more about each author, please visit our Correspondents page.

Muster will continue to publish our regular content, including author interviews, announcements about new issues, and posts that are submitted to us for consideration. We hope that readers will find in these dispatches new ways to engage in conversation, and more reasons to explore the pages of JCWE!

A federal court has ruled blood cannot determine tribal citizenship. Here’s why that matters.

The struggle over blood and belonging in American Indian communities by Alaina E. Roberts, George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center postdoctoral fellow.

The Washington Post (September 7, 2017)

On Aug. 31, the rights of descendants of African Americans formerly enslaved by Cherokee Indians were vindicated. The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled that these descendants have citizenship rights in the Cherokee Nation — the right to vote and to access all medical, educational and housing services provided to tribal citizens. Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree said the Cherokee Nation will not appeal the decision.

The uninitiated may wonder why this was a necessary legal battle. After all, the United States extended citizenship to the former slaves of their white citizens following emancipation. Why would indigenous nations who owned slaves — and who freed their slaves the year after the Civil War as a result of new treaties with the United States — not do the same?

The answer lies in the tangled definitions of identity and race in Indian country. Disagreement over whether degree of ancestry or strength of community affiliation should determine one’s citizenship has led to years of lawsuits and tribal strife. As American politicians debate who warrants access to the benefits of American citizenship — for instance, will protections for “dreamers,” brought to the United States as children, actually be terminated in six months? — and white supremacists deride people of color as un-American, the Cherokees serve as a cautionary tale that demonstrates the danger of a nation disenfranchising those deemed noncitizens by a sufficient portion of their constituency.

The Cherokees were one of five Southeastern tribes who owned slaves of African descent from the late 18th century to 1866. Before European contact, indigenous peoples throughout North America established involuntary labor and captive-taking practices, but unlike the system of enslavement that would emerge under British settlement, this bondage was neither passed from parent to child nor permanent.

As Euro-Americans became more involved in the African transatlantic slave trade, the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole Nations adopted their heritable, race-based slavery, as well as the racial hierarchy that sustained it. A fraction of tribal citizens possessed large numbers of enslaved people whose agricultural labor made them wealthy. Most other tribal citizens owned a few slaves or none — just as in the neighboring United States.

During the Civil War, these tribes were divided over whether to support the Confederacy or the Union, so members fought on both sides. After the war’s end, the U.S. government leveraged the tribes’ involvement with the Confederacy to force them to sign new treaties — despite the fact that it was the slaveholding minorities within the tribes that were the primary supporters of the Confederacy. The Treaties of 1866 served both as the Five Tribes’ terms of surrender as well as the outline for how their nations would be overhauled postwar.

The treaties’ terms included the cession of land to the United States and mandated emancipation and enfranchisement of the black slaves of each Indian nation. The Chickasaws did not comply in adopting their former slaves as citizens, and the Choctaws only did grudgingly. But in the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole nations, these black former slaves, or freedpeople, received and exercised the right to vote, and while they faced some prejudice, were largely accepted as tribal members with the rights inherent to this status.

Twenty-two years later, the freedpeople of the Five Tribes also received 40-acre land allotments through the enactment of the Dawes Act. This law was designed to break down the traditional communal land ownership practices of Indian tribes throughout the United States. It divided commonly-held land into allotments assigned to individual, nuclear families and dismembered tribal governments, allowing Native Americans to then be absorbed into the United States as American citizens — a measure many politicians, religious zealots and intellectuals believed would convert indigenous peoples into “docile believers in American progress.”

The Dawes Act also created a problematic definition of identity. The enrollment process that documented the Indian citizens and freedpeople eligible for land parcels involved the creation of two distinct rolls — the Freedmen Roll for former slaves and the “Blood Roll” for Indians.

These two rolls conferred distinctly different rights. Freedpeople were given less land (40 acres compared with 60), and each nation eventually made presence on the Blood Roll necessary for tribal citizenship. Ideas about race determined which roll a person wound up on. Whereas those listed on the Blood Roll could have varying “degrees” of Indian and white ancestry, most people who had black and indigenous ancestry were automatically put onto or transferred to the Freedmen Roll.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Creek, Seminole, Choctaw and Cherokee nations extended citizenship to both those on the Freedmen and Blood rolls. But in the late 20th and early 21st century, all four tribes stripped the descendants of freedpeople of the ability to exercise their rights as citizens.

When questioned about these developments, tribal leaders pointed to the fact that these people were listed as Freedmen, not Indians, by blood. But there were several problems with this response. First, it ignored that the Freedmen Rolls, when they were created in the 19th century, relied on the “one-drop rule.” Enshrined in the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, the one-drop rule meant that people of mixed-race descent could legally still be considered solely black. This effectively erased the Native ancestry of most people on the Freedmen Roll: even if they and their ancestors had possessed Native ancestry, there was no official record of it.

Second, this response disavowed indigenous peoples’ long histories of basing citizenship on kinship: acting as a community member, facing hardships together and adopting family members informally. Kin-based citizenship has a far longer history than citizenship based on nebulous ideas of “blood quantum,” wherein ancestry is determined by phenotype and ancestral math. (For example, if your father is one-half Cherokee and your mother is not Cherokee, you are one-fourth Cherokee.)

As the descendants of these freedpeople had been citizens, friends and neighbors for decades, the kinship definition surely applied to them. So why the change? As historians Tiya Miles, Barbara Krauthamer and Celia Naylor have persuasively argued, this strategic disenfranchisement was less about ancestry than about veiled prejudice — no citizens of white and Native ancestry were disenfranchised — and the consolidation of recent economic gains from tribal casinos, natural resources and other ventures.

With this recent ruling, Cherokee freedpeople have won a battle waged for some 30 odd years, reclaiming not only the right to access the practical benefits of citizenship in the Cherokee Nation, but also their right to claim ownership of the nation their ancestors’ labor helped to build.

Congratulations to Chris Hayashida-Knight!

Congratulations to Christopher Hayashida-Knight on successfully defending his dissertation, “Sacrifices and Sufferings of True Americans: Black Women’s Nationalism and Activism in Philadelphia, 1863-1901”!

By the Standard of Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment, Trump’s Would be a No-Brainer by Patrick Rael

A President came to office under a cloud, to help govern a badly divided nation. But he squabbled with his own party, which controlled both houses in Congress, and abused the pardon power in ways that emboldened white supremacists and vigilante terrorists operating outside the law. To avoid accountability for his actions, he dismissed a critical figure in the executive branch, and this proved to be the final move that led Congress to impeach him.

That may sound like a description of the near future, but it is actually the story of Andrew Johnson, the first President in American history to face impeachment. There are crucial differences, though, in the scenarios of 1868 and 2017. For all of his numerous faults, Johnson inherited a nation in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Donald Trump, on the other hand, seems intent on fomenting his own.

Trump’s actions are hastening the prospects of impeachment because they pose the same two questions that Johnson’s did: who can the President fire, and who can he pardon? Trump lurched toward potential impeachment charges in May, when he fired James Comey, the FBI Director investigating the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. Since then, Trump has left open the possibility of firing Robert Mueller, the special counsel continuing this investigation in the wake of Comey’s firing. Pundits have been spending considerable time weighing the legality of such a move and its likelihood of sparking impeachment.[1]

Trump’s potential use of the pardon has also been implicated in calls for his impeachment. In July, Trump asked his attorneys about his pardon powers, concluding that “the U.S. President has the complete power to pardon.” He exercised that power on August 25, pardoning the unrepentant Joe Arpaio, the convicted Arizona sheriff notorious for racial profiling and violating the civil rights of jailed citizens. Trump announced the unusual move by tweet under the cover of a hurricane, having failed to conduct the Department of Justice review typical of Presidential pardons.

To his critics, Trump’s actions not only embolden the white supremacists and nativists who view Arpaio as a hero, but they also reinforce an impression of Trump’s weak commitment to the rule of law. If the President is willing to pardon Arpaio out of affinity with his contempt for legal process, they say, why would Trump hesitate to pardon members of his inner circle, his family, or himself?[2] Does the President understand and respect the limits of his office? In short, the argument runs, Trump’s potential abuse of the pardon power for corrupt purposes portends a true constitutional crisis. Trump may have the legal power to pardon indiscriminately, but, say some legal scholars, he may still be impeached for abusing it.[3]


The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

Congratulations to William Blair!

Congratulations to William Blair, Walter L. and Helen P. Ferree Professor of Middle American History and Richards Center Director, who has received a Center for Humanities & Information fellowship for the fall 2017! Dr. Blair will spend the semester researching the records of the Freemen's Bureau collection for his current project, "Murders and Outrages," to trace 3,972 instances of atrocities—murders, assaults, knifings, sexual assaults, economic coercion, and assassinations of government agents—committed by southern whites against Republicans and black citizens in the post-Civil War South. 

The Center for Humanities and Information supports research on the role information plays in the production of social meaning and value across the human sciences, from the orality-literacy transition to the new digital media. Addressing questions of information’s role in governmentality, social memory, communication, literature and culture, philosophy, and history, the Center builds each year an intellectual community of fellows composed of visiting scholars, graduate students, and Penn State faculty. 

Tuckered Out: Let’s Correct the Record on the History of Slavery and Abolition by Patrick Rael

Screenshot from Tucker Carlson Tonight, August 15, 2017. Courtesy of Fox News.
Screenshot from Tucker Carlson Tonight, August 15, 2017. Courtesy of Fox News.
The contemporary moment is witnessing a disgraceful outpouring of violent racism, emboldened by an erratic President who has made the White House a bully pulpit for white supremacy. As disheartening as this is, it is occasioning an extraordinary amount of history education, as scholars and commentators work feverishly to counter the myths and lies being espoused on the streets and in the halls of power.

Amidst Donald Trump’s historical malfeasance, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson offered yet another nugget of bad history lending aid and comfort to white nationalism. His August 15 commentary argued against the removal of statues honoring slaveholding Americans, suggesting that if slaveholding is to be the standard by which historical figures are to be honored, “nobody is safe.”[1]

Carlson then went on to point out that slavery is an old institution, practiced by African tribes and American Indians, as well as figures such as Plato, Mohammed, and Simon Bolivar. If slaveholding bars us from honoring historical figures, Carlson asserts, there would be few left to honor. “If we’re going to judge the past by the standards of the present, if we’re going to reduce a person’s life to the single worst thing he ever participated in, we had better be prepared for the consequences of that.” Many who signed the Declaration of Independence held slaves, Carlson notes, but “does that make what they wrote illegitimate?”[2]

Personally, I don’t care for historical hero worship and am not a fan of using public spaces to make reductionist arguments about historical figures who deserve nuanced investigation. But Carlson has it all wrong. For one, it is untrue that there’s a “movement” among “Leftists” to reduce the Founders to nothing more than “racist villains,” or have slaveholding Founders such as Jefferson “purged from public memory, forever.”[3] Aside from the obvious caricature here, it is clear that statues honoring historical figures represent a mere fraction of our public memory, which is nourished in myriad realms ranging from classrooms and museums to popular literature and feature films. We are in no danger of forgetting the Founders.

The entire article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.