When Rhonda Grayson was growing up in Oklahoma, summer visits to her grandparents' house in Wewoka meant time spent in the kitchen with her grandmother. Together they cooked peach cobbler and traditional Native foods like wild onions, poke salad and hominy, the corn used to make grits.
Cooking was just one way Grayson learned about the rich history and culture of the generations of Black Native Americans who came before her.
"I was always keenly aware of my African ancestry," said Grayson, 51. Part of her lineage was Native, too. "I always knew that we were Creek."'
One of those Black Creek ancestors was Grayson's great-grandmother America Cohee.
Cohee was an original enrollee in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. For generations, Black Creeks like Cohee had been a part of the tribe, until one day they weren't.
For more than 40 years, Black Creek descendants like Rhonda Grayson have been fighting to regain citizenship in the Creek tribe. Because their lineage also harks back to the dark days of chattel slavery, these would-be members of the Creek Nation have been shut out. In a year marked by historic uprisings in support of Black lives, these Black Native Americans say now is the time to acknowledge their rights, too.
The deep impact of the Dawes Act
Based in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the Creek Nation today has more than 86,000 enrolled citizens. It is one of the largest federally recognized tribes in the United States. The nation's land includes more than 7,000 square miles across Oklahoma, stretching from Tulsa in the north to the Canadian River at its southern edge.
The Creek people descend from Indigenous tribes who lived in the Southeastern U.S. long before European colonization, but eventually those two histories converged.
As chattel slavery became a core economic engine in the colonies, some tribes, including the Creek, also capitalized on slave labor.
The late 1700s was "when the tribe really began to pick up on Black enslavement," said Alaina E. Roberts, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. The Creek Nation adopted chattel slavery as a strategic effort, Roberts said, to ally with white settlers by assimilating to their culture.