The Historical demography of Texas
Many times larger than most European countries, and having been governed by six different nations across its history, to the world at large Texas is locked into the popular Hollywood perception of cowboys and oil well millionaires. Certainly both can be found there, though the old western movies that fostered such an image were mostly filmed in the countryside around Los Angeles. Eight hundred miles (1,287 km) across, Texas’ huge landscape ranges from coastal islands to forests to deserts to canyons and mountain ranges.
It has been settled over the centuries by a wide variety of peoples speaking different of languages. The Balcones Fault runs in a southwesterly direction across the state and effectively divides it in two, both geographically and ethnically Europeans, especially Germans and Czechs, have settled mostly in central Texas, the Hispanic population increases as one travels West, while the African American population is greater in the eastern half, where Texas’ biggest cities are located.
The Creole Languages of Texas
Texas was a slave-holding state. Wikipedia lists it as “the westernmost extension of the Deep South, [where] the predominant cultural influence comes from customs and traditions passed down from Anglo and African Southerners who settled the region during the mid and late 19th Century”. The speech, the food, folklore and music are all southern, yet flavoured with influences from other immigrant groups that sets it apart from every other southern state. The accordion, for instance, so much a part of Louisiana zydeco and Mexican conjunto music, was introduced by the Germans and Czechs.
Among the extensive ethnic mix can be found communities speaking two Creole languages, one lexified from English, the other from French. The latter is commonly the case in south-east Texas, especially in the region known as “the Golden Triangle” (the towns of Beaumont, Orange and Port Arthur), and in Houston’s Third Ward, where many Creole speakers from Louisiana have settled. Louisiana Creole French, known variously as Kuri-Vini or Nègue, has had a long-standing presence in the state. Sharing a common border, it has been a refuge for Afro-Louisianans for various reasons, social as well as weather-related. The floods in the early 1920s, and more recently Katrina, have brought thousands of people into south-eastern Texas over the years.
The Louisiana French Creoles have already been introduced in earlier issues of Kreol, this article focuses on the history and language of the Black Seminoles. This is called by its speakers Shiminoli or Maskogo, and which is referred to in the literature as Afro-Seminole. Like the Garifuna in Belize and Honduras, the Texas Seminoles are genetically of African descent, but ethnically American Indian.
Besides these two Texas Creoles there are a couple of other languages that are, or were, spoken and which warrant passing mention. They include the now extinct Mobilian trade language, also known as Yamá and Yoka-Anompa. This was a pidgin originating in a number of indigenous languages spoken across the South, especially Choctaw, Chickasaw and Kwasati, together with words from the French, English and Spanish of the whites. There is disagreement as to whether it existed before the Europeans’ arrival or only emerged subsequently. It is no longer spoken, but served as a lingua franca extending from Alabama to Texas throughout the nineteenth century. It survives in the refrain chakamo fino hé, heard in the Dixie Cups’ Mardi Gras song Iko Iko, and which means “very good, hey!” One source for this language is Crawford, (1978).
Keeping the Creole Languages of Texas pure!
Also referred to as a Creole (though incorrectly, by Gonzales, 1967) is the nebulous phenomenon called variously “Tex-Mex,” “Spanglish” or “Pachuco”. It is the local Spanish with many lexical adoptions and calques from English: estoy parquiando la troca “I’m parking the truck”. But regardless of its vocabulary the grammar is Spanish, not Creole, and this sentence is no different from the English equivalent, which itself uses two imports from French (troquer, parc).
This latter statement is important; Creoles are often called “mixed” languages, but of course all languages are mixed, making the criterion a universal one, and thus not one of any special relevance to Creoles in particular. “Mixing” is most evident in vocabulary, and it is the use of “foreign” words that comes most readily under attack. Tex-Mex is regarded as not being ‘proper’ Spanish, and those who say so will bring up words such as parquiando and troca to make their point. Why this brings criticism when there are more French words in English than there are English ones in Spanish has to do with two things: time and status. French words entered English centuries ago, and distance has lent forgetfulness and thus legitimacy; by comparison English words have been adopted into Tex-Mex much more recently.
The second factor, the social status of the speakers, is rooted in history. When a population has been marginalized and denied its dignity over a long period of time, then the language it speaks is similarly devalued. This has been true of Spanish-speaking Americans, and it has also been true of Creole speakers and their languages, though thankfully, this is changing. This is due in part to political change and independence from colonial rule in Creole-speaking Haiti, Curaçao, Sierra Leone and Jamaica for example, and also in part to the increased academic attention being paid to such languages, particularly the recognition of their importance to linguistic theory, especially as it relates to language acquisition. The existence now of dictionaries and grammars and schoolbooks in Creole languages brings legitimacy and “authenticity” to languages which for too many of their speakers have been regarded as ungrammatical and “broken”. Such attitudes are in large part the result of being told these things by non-Creole speaking teachers during the colonial period, and internalizing them. If those who have power and wealth tell us our language is incorrect, they must be right, and if we are to succeed in life then we must fix the way we speak to be more like them. But the response to the charge that Creoles are ungrammatical is simple: it is easy to speak any Creole language incorrectly. Therefore they must have rules, a right and a wrong way to speak them.
The Afro-Seminole Creole existence denied
Sadly, for many people these negative feelings are still there. They have affected the transmission of the Afro-Seminole Creole discussed in this article. Existence of the Seminoles’ language was kept from outsiders until 1976, and for the past two generations parents haven’t passed the language on for the reasons given above. Today it is practically extinct; there may be fewer than 200 people who speak it, all of whom are elderly.
The Origins of Afro-Seminole Creole
Afro-Seminole is an early offshoot from Gullah (also called Geechee or Sea Islands Creole) spoken along the coast and especially the offshore islands of South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida. There the Gullah language is disappearing too, but not because it isn’t being passed along to the next generation in the way that Afro-Seminole is being lost; it is being diluted out of existence by the English that now surrounds it. A process creolists call “metropolitanization”. Gullah texts from a century ago (e.g. in the works of A. Gonzales or Jones) reflect a Gullah that is no longer heard along the Atlantic seaboard. It is heard in Texas, however, and by a community in northern Mexico some 200 miles away, and until the mid-20th century, in Oklahoma too.
To understand the origins of Afro-Seminole Creole, one must first look at the origins of Gullah. During the Atlantic slave trade, the British took most of their African captives to Barbados, which they settled in 1627, before distributing them to their other Crown colonies. This included Carolina, which was founded in 1670, though after 1698 slaves were being brought in more and more from Africa directly. Carolina originally covered a huge area, which even included much of what is today Florida. Georgia was then Creek Indian country, and was free territory. When it became a colony in 1732, it immediately tried to prohibit slavery, but because of pressure from Carolina was unsuccessful.
Georgia initially purchased its own slaves from Carolina, but after 1749 began to import them from the West Indies. Nevertheless, slaves continued to come into both Carolina and Georgia directly from Africa in large numbers, significantly from the Upper Guinea Coast. Between 1701 and 1808, imports from Africa into Carolina were as follows: from Sierra Leone and The Gambia 76,000, from Ghana 28,000, from Liberia 19,000, from Benin 4,000 and from Biafra 23,000—and into Georgia (between 1766 and 1858): from Sierra Leone and The Gambia 12,000, from Liberia 2,200, from Ghana 3,800 and from the ‘central coast’ 5,800. Thus for each colony the totals for Sierra Leone and The Gambia (where the Anglophone Creole Krio is spoken, to be presented in a later issue of Kreol) exceeded the totals for all other regions combined. In the book, “The Africanist”, Paul Hair (1965: 81-82) observed that “from these figures, it can hardly be doubted that Sierra Leone languages have made a major contribution to the Africanisms in the Gullah dialect… we know of nowhere else in America where the influence of Sierra Leone languages can be traced to anything like this extent”. According to Gullah specialist Salikoko Mufwene (1997: 11) “the period between 1720 and 1750 [was] the critical stage in the emergence of Gullah as a distinct African American variety”, the crucial period of its formation also agreed upon by Opala (1986). How much the 18th century West African pidgin or Creole that eventually became Krio also played a part in the origins of Gullah is a question still being debated by creolists and historians.
Both Black and Native American escapees from the English plantations in the 17th and 18th century were able to find refuge in Spanish Florida. They were allowed to establish autonomous communities around St. Augustine and where they were known as cimarrones, the origin of the word Seminoles, and which means, roughly, ‘fugitives’. Already by 1821 there were 34 Seminole settlements in northern Florida, three of which were African. According to Giddings (1858:3), the word “Seminole” was first used to refer to the Black escapees into Florida, and was only later applied by the Creeks to the Indian fugitives. They numbered an estimated 7,000, and were welcomed by the Spanish government since they served as a buffer between themselves and the newly-created United States.
In 1817 General Andrew Jackson and his army were sent to northern Florida to subdue the rebellious Seminoles and seize the land, killing livestock, burning crops, and destroying the Black forts along the Apalachicola and Suwannee Rivers. One of the drafters and signers of the Constitution of the United States complained about the numbers of slaves escaping from South Carolina into Florida, which by then had become U.S. territory. At that time slavery was still legal, and raids to capture free Africans created considerable problems for the governor in his efforts to develop the new territory.
The reasons for the Seminole diaspora
The Seminole Wars in the 1830s were bloody conflicts that led to the mass removal of Seminoles to Indian Territory in what is today Oklahoma. Groups of Black Seminoles left Florida for other places as well; some went to the Bahamas, some reportedly to Guanabacoa in Cuba, and others were invited to stay with the Cherokee. Only about 300 Seminoles—almost all of them Indians—remained in Florida, where they had been granted five million acres of land further south in the Everglades.
In 1849, some of the Oklahoma Seminoles applied to the Mexican government for permission to go and live in that country, possibly because they believed they would be more at home in a Hispanic environment and perhaps could speak Spanish. However, the main reason for the request was that almost as soon as they had arrived in Indian Territory, the US government declared them legally to be slaves, while slavery had already been abolished in Mexico some twenty years before. A group of about 500 Black and Indian Seminoles left Oklahoma in the late fall of 1849, crossing Texas where they were joined by two hundred Kickapoo Indians in the Brazos river Valley near Waco, and crossing into Coahuila, Mexico in July 1850. At first the Black Seminoles settled in Moral, not far from the Texas border, while the Indian Seminoles settled separately at La Navaja and the Kickapoo at Guererro. Later the Black Seminoles moved a hundred miles further into Mexico to Musquiz, soon after that moving a few miles away to El Nacimiento de los Negros, with a few families going instead to Matamoros. The Kickapoo moved to the nearby colony of El Nacimiento de los Indios, but practically all of the Indian Seminoles decided to return to Oklahoma.
In Mexico, the Black Seminoles met another Creole-speaking group who were already there. These were the Black Creek who, like the Afro-Seminoles, were originally Africans who had become acculturated to the Indians they lived with without losing their Creole language. They were the Africans who lived with the Upper Creek in Georgia, and who had also been sent West to Indian territory. While the Afro-Seminoles, who lived with the Lower Creek and others in Florida, left Tampa Bay by boat for New Orleans and traveled to Indian Territory via the Mississippi River, the Black Creek reached Oklahoma overland. They were brought to Coahuila and left there by their Indian owners, who had been negotiating for land for them since 1834. In addition to these two groups, the community was also being joined by “state-raised” men and women escaping from slavery in Texas via an underground railroad leading south into Mexico. Such families as the Gordons and the Shields descend from these fugitives.
The American Government’s betrayal of the Seminoles
In 1870 following negotiations with Mexico, the American government sent US Cavalry Captain Franklin Perry to Nacimiento to recruit the Seminoles, because of their reputation as fighters and because of their familiarity with Native Americans, to come and help the US Army drive the Plains tribes out of West Texas so that settlement there would be less of a problem for the Whites. The Seminoles agreed, and garrisoned themselves under the leadership of General Bullis in Fort Duncan at Eagle Pass in Maverick County, and Fort Clark at Brackettville in Kinney County, in south Texas. They were successful, and continued to serve the United States until they were discharged in 1914. They were never informed of their rights as American Indians, and later attempts to be included on the Seminole Register and to obtain land of their own were ignored. Woodhull (1937:127) wrote:
“The scouts have been disbanded and their families have been moved off the Reservation at Fort Clark. They are not entitled to consideration as Indians, because they did not register under some provision of Congress, of which they knew nothing, and they get no consideration as Negroes”.
In 1992 members of the Texas Seminoles and the Sea Island Gullahs were reunited for the first time in 166 years at the Third Biennial National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia. On September 16th, 2007, a delegation from Oklahoma led by Representative Angela Molette (Tuscaloosa Ohoyo) officially confirmed the Black Seminoles as the United Warrior Band of the Seminole Nation (one of the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes”) in a ceremony in Brackettville, Texas at which Seminole Negro Indian Scout Association President William Warrior was sworn in as tribal chief.