Hello H-CivWar Readers:
Today we continue our conversation with Fay A. Yarbrough about her new book, Choctaw Confederates: The American Civil War in Indian Country, published by the University of North Carolina Press in November 2021.
I want to pivot toward the Civil War a little, recently some scholars of the Indian Territory have suggested that we should treat the region like a Border States, such as Missouri. Where do you stand on that?
FAY: Indian Territory did share some commonalities with the Border States in that it physically bordered both “slave” and “free” states and that there was some internal disagreement within Native nations about siding with the Confederacy or the federal government. I agree with scholar Bradley Clampitt, however, that there is an important difference: the Native nations in Indian Territory were sovereign, and individuals there were not American citizens. Moreover, several nations also did sign treaties of alliance with the Confederacy rather than stay neutral, which one could argue was siding with the federal government. There were also real cultural differences between Native nations and the United States that have important consequences. I think the more significant idea that drives the suggestion that we treat Indian Territory like a Border State is that we rarely think about Indian Territory when we look at Civil War history, and we should! So if the discussion about Indian Territory as a Border State leads to the inclusion of the west in Civil War history, I am all for it.
Before we get to the Civil War West, I want to quickly address the last part of your book and Reconstruction. You already mention that the Native people are sovereign, which means emancipation and the Thirteen Amendment do not apply to these five tribes. Do the Choctaw also have to sign a new treaty with the United States to end slavery?
FAY: The Choctaw Nation did sign a treaty with the United States in 1866 that included a provision to end the practice of slavery. In many ways, the Native nations of Indian Territory who sided with the Confederacy underwent a kind of reconstruction just as the Confederate states did. The nations signed treaties to re-establish friendly relations with the federal government, and these treaties included the abolition of slavery and the conferral of citizenship for the newly emancipated. And because land was owned communally by the Choctaws, citizenship could lead directly to land ownership, something freed people in the states of the former Confederacy desperately wanted.
Reconstruction in Indian Territory often sounds like a story of what Reconstruction could have been like, how does it playout for the Choctaw and especially Afro-Choctaw?
FAY: Indeed! Many years ago, I was at a conference with Crystal Feimster, and she used precisely the same kind of language—that perhaps the Indian Territory was a test case for what could have happened if the federal government had, in fact, granted land to formerly enslaved people. The Choctaw government initially pushed back on including their formerly enslaved population in the polity, but eventually made provisions for Choctaw freedpeople, though with limitations. But the freepeople there (in Choctaw Nation and in other Native nations) did have access to land, land which eventually became the founding plots for many all-Black towns in the state of Oklahoma and which may have led to some of the wealth that made a community such as Greenwood in Tulsa possible.
Let's change direction and turn to Civil War West scholarship and its importance. We have two camps on this where one side argues the West did not matter and is thus not important and the other that pushes strongly back against that line of dismissive thinking. How would you push back against such naysayers, that the West and Native American people did matter?
FAY: As Adam Arenson states so eloquently in the Introduction of Civil War Wests, scholars agree that the issue of expansion into western territories and the fate of slavery there precipitated the Civil War. The issue of the West and its place in the country, then, were central to why the war was fought. The West was also something of a training ground for many of the most important political actors of the day as well as for military strategies that were then used in the war. Finally, I’ll say that some of the same questions that the federal government struggled to answer in its dealings with Native people (What should their legal status be? Could they be citizens? Could they be “American”? What was their place in American society?) were precisely the same questions lawmakers faced regarding newly emancipated people. Thus, how authorities answered these questions in one arena is useful in thinking about these questions in the other.
I always tell my students that only because "North" and "South" were mass murdering each other did not mean the clock stopped in the West and we sort of hit pause. How does the study of the Civil War Era West, especially Native American history, show the continuation of trends and how the war did/did not disrupt those trends?
FAY: Well, one important trend that continues is western expansion by the United States. We can see from the treaties that emerge at the end of the Civil War that the United States’s desire for Native territory did not abate. The war and Native participation as Confederate allies gave the federal government the excuse to make inroads on Native sovereignty and land claims.
Do you have any new plans/projects?
FAY: Currently, my colleague Michael Maas and I are organizing a conference for the spring of 2022 called “Naming the Natives: Indigenous Peoples as Seen by Their Rulers in the Early American Empire and the Roman Empire.” He studies ancient Rome and I am a historian of the nineteenth-century US, but we found that across this vast time and geography, imperial powers and indigenous peoples faced similar questions when their cultures clashed. We’ve invited an international roster of participants to tackle some of these questions, and we plan to publish a volume based on the papers.