The Indigenous connection to the Underground Railroad – CBC.ca

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Unreserved13:35The Indigenous connection to the Underground Railroad

Most stories of the Underground Railroad follow the narrative of white people helping Black people escape slavery, but overlook the involvement of Indigenous allies who often risked their own lives to help freedom seekers cross into Canada safely.

Historian Roy Finkenbine is among those rewriting that history.

He’s working on a book tentatively called, Freedom Seekers in Indian Country, while teaching African American history at the University of Detroit Mercy. 

He spoke with Falen Johnson, host of Unreserved, about his research on Indigenous involvement in the Underground Railroad, and why he feels a moral obligation to write about it.

What questions are you trying to answer in your upcoming book, Freedom Seekers in Indian Country?

I’m looking at how and why Native Americans helped freedom seekers. How they helped includes providing sanctuary among their communities – often to boost their populations – and in assisting people to cross the border.

They shared a kinship based on a common enemy, if we can use that term, in terms of white expansionism. Many groups like the Ojibwa referred to African-Americans as cousins and brothers. Peter Jones, a [Mississauga] missionary, said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Negroes,” as he said, “have it even worse because of the iron bands of slavery. So we have an obligation to help.” 

At artist’s rendering of Caesar, who escaped enslavement in Virginia in 1774 and took sanctuary among the Shawnee in Ohio Country. (Submitted by Roy Finkenbine)

What sources are you turning to for this research?

The first evidence is simple geography. In the midwest, the trails that freedom seekers took northward to Ontario or to sanctuary in the Upper Great Lakes region took them right through, or by, Native American communities. 

I’m also reading documents left by formerly enslaved people who wrote about their experiences, and I’m speaking with elders who’ve heard stories passed down in their families. Oral tradition is huge among both groups. There’s a book of stories that was eventually published called Indians of Hungry Hollow. 

As well, I’m reviewing archives, and genealogy records. DNA evidence shows massive intermixing.  

Speaking of oral tradition, I’ve heard stories in my family about Indigenous people creating signals to communicate with freedom seekers moving through the territory. My dad, who has Tuscarora lineage, tells a story of an Indigenous woman who sat her daughter out on the front porch. If the girl had two braids that meant the route was clear, but if she had one braid down her back, that meant, don’t cross. Have you heard stories like that? 

I can’t speak directly to Native American use of signalling. 

But signalling generally is way overblown in Underground Railroad stories. There may have been localized signaling in a particular village or particular nation. But the idea of universal signals is kind of counterintuitive, because once they were found out, it would shut the enterprise down. 

The Underground Railroad was very improvisational, like good jazz. Circumstances were constantly changing. If there were slave catchers on your tail, you change routes or use a disguise. All sorts of things. So improvisation, I think, is a better way of understanding it.

That’s really interesting. How did you get into this research?

I spent 40 years studying Black involvement in the anti-slavery movement. It’s hard, even as a white American, not to look at this history and take it somewhat personally. 

I was one of those nasty white settlers who moved in and was a beneficiary of Native American catastrophe, the decimation of disease and also removal. 

Historian Roy Finkenbine is working on a book called “Freedom Seekers in Indian Country” about Indigenous involvement in the Underground Railroad. (Submitted by Roy Finkenbine)

The reason I have a PhD and am able to teach college today is because of the money my father made farming on land stolen from the Shawnee. That allowed my father to send four of us to college for advanced postgraduate degrees. We’ve benefited in many ways from that tragedy of Indian removal, so there’s a moral implication there that drives me. 

And, that very few people are looking at this connection of African American and Native American coexistence and cooperation in the Midwest on, and during, the era of the Underground Railroad. That says to me that this is something that maybe I have been chosen by who-knows-what to research and tell.

Why do you think this history is so largely unknown?

I think a lot of historians dismiss the oral tradition as somehow less significant, less valuable. And I think it’s self-serving on the part of white folks who were writing history. You know the old saying: “Winners write the history?” The winners in the case of settlement on the land were white folks, including my ancestors. They got to tell the history. 

So I think for them, in many cases, this coexistence and cooperation between freedom seekers and Native Americans was kind of, to use Al Gore’s term, “an inconvenient truth.” They didn’t see it fit into the story they wanted to tell.


This interview has been edited and condensed.