In the peculiar racial order of these United States, almost everyone claims a Native American ancestor—usually Cherokee, the most popular, if not most probable, option—perched on some distant branch of the family tree.
Declaring Indianness is just as much a part of black American culture as it is for the majority's, partly due to real intermixture: Some recent large-scale DNA testing suggests that today's African Americans typically have 14 percent European and 3 percent native genetic material. There's also often a culturally programmed desire to escape the "stain" of blackness by claiming mixed bloodlines.
Durham author Zelda Lockhart's family—an African-American clan rooted in the Mississippi Black Belt—has never raced to acknowledge its Indian heritage. But with her latest novel, Cold Running Creek, Lockhart sets out to bring to life her family's hidden native heritage.
Untold stories have always fired Lockhart's imagination. In 2003, the 41-year-old mother of two won critical acclaim and comparisons with Alice Walker's The Color Purple for her debut novel, Fifth Born, a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection about toxic family secrets and child abuse.
It was Lockhart's instinct for secret histories that fed her interest in her maternal great-grandmother, Lilly Kilburne. She was of Choctaw and possibly Creek heritage, but married Lockhart's black great-grandfather Willie.
"A lot of black people and families will say 'We're part Indian.' Lilly seemed like a phantom, and nobody wanted to talk about her," says Lockhart. One of the few nuggets about Lilly that the history-hungry Lockhart could pull from her reticent relatives was a short sentence uttered by her great-aunt Sudie, who said that Willie "stole that girl."
Unable to extract more from her family, Lockhart went on the hunt for genealogical traces of Lilly and information about black-Choctaw relationships. Shifting through archives, she discovered that like so much in the 19th century, black-Choctaw encounters were ruled by slavery. In a basement reading room at Duke's Perkins Library, she found the Works Progress Administration slave narratives, which included testimonies of descendants of former slaves owned by the Choctaws.
"The narratives really helped shape the layers in my mind about the reality of that time, down to the fabrics they wore, what kind of dialect a Choctaw slave would use," says Lockhart.
"One day, I was sitting in the basement of Perkins, reading the letters from the Indian slave owners. I was just shaking and bawling because no matter what color we are, man, people will step on each other's heads. It's not about race. It's all about getting part of what Master had."
With the enigmatic sentence—"he stole that girl"—still ringing in her head, and the historical documents in front of her, Lockhart found Cold Running Creek's heroine in a mixture of fact and fiction: an enslaved black-Indian girl living in the volatile pre-Civil War period.
Cold Running Creek begins with the story of Raven, a Choctaw girl on the verge of womanhood in the early 1800s. When her father tries to negotiate with whites encroaching on Choctaw territory, Raven barely survives a rape and a massacre that obliterates her band.
The book fast-forwards to the adult Raven Leflore, now the starched wife of Grey Fox, a Choctaw-white plantation owner. When a suspiciously Choctaw-looking baby is born in the slave quarters, Raven claims the child, Lilly, as her own. But as the position of the Choctaws becomes more tenuous in their Mississippi homeland and the federal government backs a policy of moving Indians westward, privileged Lilly is forced into slavery by her one-time neighbors —only to be kidnapped again by a free black man who makes her his wife.
Just as novelist Edward Jones's The Known World highlighted the experience of black slaveholders (a statistically small group among U.S. slave owners), Cold Running Creek forces its readers to reconcile an apparent irony: that the dispossessed adopt their oppressors' customs and violate another population. Barbara Krauthamer, a New York University assistant history professor who researches contact between Native Americans and blacks during the 19th century, says the historical record backs the general plot of Cold Running Creek.
"None of this sounds historically implausible," Krauthamer says. "From the early 1700s, a lot of Choctaws patrolled parts of Louisiana for runaway slaves, and it wasn't uncommon for them to send them back or sell them. Choctaws served as the middlemen for much of the colonial slave trade." And later, at the beginning of the Civil War, as many as 3,000 black slaves served the Choctaws and Chickasaws as domestics, field laborers and possibly interpreters to English-speaking missionaries.
Despite the common notion that Indian slave owners were more benevolent masters, slavery under Native Americans was no less brutal. "It's a comforting misconception," says Krauthamer. "There's no evidence that Indians were kinder or more benign; there were plenty of slaves running away from Indian masters, too. And there were large vocal contingents of the Choctaws and Chickasaws who were anti-black and racist about the future of free people in their lands," says Krauthamer.
Take the Choctaw Nation's constitution of 1838, which stipulated that no "free negro, or any part negro, unconnected with Choctaw or Chickasaw blood, shall be permitted to come and settle in the Choctaw nation" (notice that the document tacitly acknowledges the existence of mixed-race people connected to the nations); no one with African heritage could hold political office in the nation; and that anyone "taking up" with a negro slave would be fined or lashed. By 1840, free blacks living within Choctaw and Chickasaw territory were ordered to forever leave its borders or risk being sold into slavery.
Released late last year, Cold Running Creek has renewed relevance because in early March, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma voted to oust members who were descendants of the tribe's slaves, denying them citizenship and federal benefits no matter how much Cherokee heritage those "Black Indians" possessed. In this society that's so perversely arbitrary about racial definitions, one drop of African blood qualifies a person as black and American Indians are required to meet the blood quantum proving their roots. To many, one drop of black blood also means you can't be an Indian.
Zelda Lockhart's family tree says otherwise.
The story of Indian slave owners and the people they held in bondage is a growing area of scholarship. But Lockhart's fictional riff on her family history almost never made it to print. Major publishing house Simon & Schuster bought her manuscript, but missed multiple publishing dates. Cold Running Creek was initially scheduled to be a quick, sophomore follow-up to Fifth Born in 2004. But after repeated delays, Lockhart reclaimed her book from the publisher and opened LaVenson Press, her own independent publisher named after her now-deceased older brother. Lockhart's move meant bucking a publishing establishment and a reading public that's notoriously wary of self-published efforts, and to raise capital, she sold "everything that wasn't chained down" and became author-publisher-distributor-publicist all in one.
These days, Lockhart writes and publishes in her north Durham home, surrounded by stacks of her own books and with her daughter often playing nearby. Though the real Lilly was not a slave, there could have been a mixed-race Lilly caught between cultures and suspended between slavery and freedom. The possibility of such a historical Lilly and the still unknown reality of her great-grandmother's life intrigue Lockhart, who will teach a June historical fiction writing seminar at Chicago's prestigious Newberry Library, known for its Native American resources and other archives.
Years after Lockhart started her quest to find Lilly, she can't stop looking for her—and may not be able to leave Lilly and Willie behind with just one book.
With a rueful smile, Lockhart says, "I don't do sequels. But...." She's not prepared to finish that sentence just yet.