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By Blood 2017

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Outcast Films, 511 6th Avenue Suite 398, New York, NY 10011; 646-512-2596
Produced by Marcos Barbery
Directed by Marcos Barbery and Samuel Z. Russell
DVD, color, 53 min.

High School - General Adult
African Americans, Indigenous Peoples, Native Americans, Race Relations, Slavery

Date Entered: 07/10/2018

Reviewed by Wendy Highby, University of Northern Colorado

By Blood tells the story of Cherokee and Seminole Freedmen fighting to regain full citizenship and inclusion in their American Indian tribes. The “Freedmen” in the film are descendants of African Americans owned as slaves by members of the Cherokee and Seminole Nations (two of the “Five Civilized Tribes”) prior to the Trail of Tears. The Trail was the reprehensible result of President Andrew Jackson’s implementation of the Indian Removal Act in the 1830s. Members of the Five Civilized Tribes, and the African Americans enslaved by them, were forced to leave the Southeast U.S. and move to Oklahoma. The documentary’s talking heads (historians, professors, a journalist and a legislative director) explicate this history and comment upon the current-day struggle to resolve the legacy of the human rights violations committed by European colonialists and U.S. expansionists.

Following the Emancipation Proclamation, the Treaty of 1866 declared that Freedmen “shall have all the rights of native Cherokees.” After the land rush, further encroachment upon rights occurred. In a federal census taken between 1902 and 1906, the Dawes Commission created registers of tribes to dole out property via allotments and homesteads. This appearance-based census was conducted in a manner discriminatory toward those with African American ancestry or of mixed descent. The Seminole and Cherokee tribes’ contemporary policy of exclusion of the Freedmen relies upon the “by blood” section of the Dawes rolls, while the plaintiffs’ arguments for inclusion lean upon the Treaty. The exclusionary policy, a legacy of enslavement, complicates current relations between Native Americans and African Americans. The documentary’s well written and deftly edited narrative presents both sides of this issue (Attorney General Todd Hembree of the Cherokee Nation voices the pro-exclusion view), though more time is devoted to the proponents of inclusion of the Freedmen and pro-inclusion is the film’s favored point of view.

The segments with academics and advocates are intercut with interviews of Freedmen in Tulsa, Tahlequah, Boley, and Wewoka, Oklahoma. Seminole Freedmen Sylvia Davis and Theola Jones, and Cherokee Freedmen Lucy Allen, Opal Jackson, and Marilyn Vann, are among the featured plaintiffs; they are assisted by their attorney Jon Velie and lay advocate David Cornsilk. They seek to regain their tribal citizenship and the range of benefits associated with membership, including healthcare, education grants, and housing assistance. There have been successive attempts to deny Freedmen these economic benefits and the right to vote (franchise). Most recently, Seminole Freedmen were disenfranchised in 1999; likewise the Cherokee Freedmen in 2003. Ostensibly concerning the court cases, By Blood also courageously delves into the sensitive subjects of ethnic identity, race relations, tribal sovereignty, racism, and reparations. It has an effective mix of talking heads and footage of Freedmen engaging in routine activities at church and the rodeo, typical of Middle America. The first half of the film introduces the Freedmen and explicates their past and recent history; the second half delves into the current social conditions, and includes news reports about the recent upsurge of gun violence and Klan activity. It also features candid interviews with a hate crime survivor and residents of North Tulsa’s segregated neighborhoods.

By Blood fearlessly exposes the tension in these communities. Unearthing an often-ignored history and its current consequences, this tale of the Freedmen’s quest for citizenship makes a strong case for inclusion and reparations. Originally brought together with Native American tribes by force, the African American Cherokee and Seminole Freedmen now choose and actively pursue community. In addition to franchise and economic benefits, they seek social justice, respect, and an end to racism. The film makes a principled and well-supported stand for inclusion, democracy, and equitable distribution of resources (regardless of Dawes roll status) when advocate David Cornsilk states that “someone doesn’t need the ‘blood of the master’ to come into the house.” The documentary is highly recommended for use by all educators teaching high school and college level courses in the following fields: area studies, cultural anthropology, economics, ethics, ethnic studies, history, law & mediation, Native American studies, peace studies, policy studies, political science, race relations, social justice, social studies, and sociology.

This film is foundational and should be seen by all U.S. citizens; for as David Cornsilk says, “only when we address the truth can we fix it.”