Other angles of Fort Smith history

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 136 views 

Two events this month feature crucial aspects of Fort Smith’s social history. Saturday, (Sept. 12), the 1865 Council of Fort Smith will be featured, and Thursday, Sept. 24, the role Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas region has played in the lives of Southeast Asians, Cubans, and Latin Americans will be featured in a talk by Dr. Perla Guerrero.

Why be interested in these events? What do they have in common? Both feature important events in the Fort Smith region that played a significant role in shaping policy and perceptions of race and ethnic relations.

Why be interested in learning about the 1865 Council of Fort Smith? Events at this council held in Fort Smith 150 years ago led directly to treaties signed in 1866 between the United States Government and many Indian Nations in Indian Territory.

The consequences of these negotiations radically altered race relations from the late 19th century up through today. What was at stake was railroad intrusion into Indian Territory, the demise of Indian self-governance, the loss of kinship-based ownership of property, and the freedom of African slaves held by individual members of various Indian Nations. These negotiations fundamentally tipped the balance of white-Indian institutional power toward whites and made Oklahoma statehood inevitable. Freeing African slaves held by Indians led to contestations of racial and ethnic identity and citizenship status that are as of yet not fully resolved.

All the activities on Sept. 12, are free and open to the public. You can pick and choose your events to attend. Several speakers are scheduled at the Fort Smith Museum of History. Dr. William Corbett will speak at 10:30 a.m. on “Why the Fort Smith Council,” at 11:45 a.m. Bethany Henry Rosenbaum will speak on “Law and Construction of African American Identity and Citizenship among Cherokee Nation,” Dr. Bob Blackburn will speak at 1 p.m. on “The Civil War and Reconstruction in Indian Territory,” Dr. Daniel Littlefield will speak at 2:15 p.m. on “Treaties of 1866: Strategic Plans for dismantling Tribes,” and Mary Jane Warde speaks at 3:30 p.m. on “When All Was Dark and Confusion: The Fort Smith Council and Reconciliation Among the Indian Territory nations.”

Additional programs including “Tribal Exhibits” and “Freedman in the Indian Territory” will be located at the Frisco Station and the National Historic Site from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A great deal of frontier hype in Fort Smith is located at the feet of U.S. Judge Isaac C. Parker without developing the historical context in which he presided. If you are interested in winnowing mythic legends from historical facts, this event might be for you. If you want to more fully understand the context within which the U.S. District Court for the Western District Court of Arkansas ultimately sent 86 men from Indian Territory to their deaths by hanging, 46% of whom were of Indian descent, and 20% of African descent, then this event might be for you. The history of Fort Smith is at the core of complex race relations in the region and serves as a microcosm for the larger American society. The 1865 Council set the tone for Indian Territory for decades to come.

Why come out to the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith campus on Thursday, Sept. 24 at 6:30 p.m. to listen to Dr. Perla Guerrero give an academic talk on “Labor Latino/as and Community”? Not just because her talk will be given in the theater of the brand new Windgate building at the corner of Waldron and Kinkead, but rather, come out during Hispanic Heritage Month to hear how Fort Smith is once again featured as an epicenter for the intermingling of various racial and ethnic groups.

Fast forward 110 years from the 1865 Council to 1975 when in a six month period more than 55,000 Southeast Asian refugees entered the United States through Fort Chaffee. Five years later, more than 20,000 Cubans arrived at Fort Chaffee. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Fort Smith region saw a substantial increase in the number of Latin Americans. All three of these waves of migrants were met with mixed reviews by local citizens.

Seldom are these events put into a larger context or analytical framework. This is exactly what Guerrero has done. A graduate of Northside High School, Guerrero earned a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Southern California. She is a professor at the University of Maryland in the department of American Studies & U.S. Latina/o Studies and turning her dissertation into a book with the draft title of “Nuevo South: Latinas/os, Asians, and the Remaking of Place.”

Contrary to decades of incorrect assumptions that race and ethnicity are somehow immutable biological categories, contemporary race theory sees them as fluid categories of identity that are in constant negotiation. Before 1975 the predominant categories of the white and black in the Fort Smith region developed conceptions of self and other based on a fairly binary framework. Understanding the sudden arrival of Southeast Asians was then situated within this very local conception of race. Subsequently, the arrival of Cubans in 1980, and Latin Americans a decade later, were likewise each racially and ethnically understood in relation to each successive group.

This is a bit of the context for understanding contemporary race relations in this region that Guerrero has developed in her studies. Her talk will feature incisive observations of the region and will give voice to personal accounts collected in the course of her research.

Each of these events locate the social history of the Fort Smith region within the action of the larger political-economy of the United States. Each are great opportunities to learn something you did not know and to gain a deeper understanding of the Fort Smith region. Both are free and open to the public.