The American Scholar: How the Black Creeks Lost Their Citizenship

Chickasaw freedmen file dossier on subdivisions at Tishomingo (WP Campbell Collection/Oklahoma Historical Society

Chief Creek 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 the Creek refugees during the Civil War. In 1866, he served as an adviser during the nation’s treaty negotiations with the United States government. This treaty, in addition to outlawing slavery in the five First Nations party to it, granted full Creek Nation citizenship to Black Creeks who had been accepted into the community after marriage or had previously been enslaved by their Indian owners. Mikko Cow Tom was one of those Black Creeks. Upon his death in 1874, he bequeathed his considerable possessions, including flour mills, cattle, and land, to his family, along with Cree citizenship and a degree of social notoriety extremely rare for a black family of the time. But in 1979, the Creek Nation expelled its black members and refuses to this day to recognize their citizenship. In his new book, We refuse to forget, Caleb Gayle, journalist and professor at Northeastern University, tells the complex story of the Creek Nation’s continued consideration of identity.

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

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