Spotlight on Jon Veilie: A Man on a Thirteen Year Mission

Spotlight on Jon Veilie: A Man on a Thirteen Year Mission

The Modern American
Volume 1, Issue 1 (Spring 2005)
Article 8
pages 22-23

Lydia Edwards

It all started one month after he passed the bar. Sylvia Davis, a black Seminole, came to Jon for help. She had been to many lawyers already. She told Jon Velie her story about how her 13 year old son was denied clothing benefits because he is black. “It hit me as obviously wrong. So I naively took the case on a contingency basis not knowing there would be no real payment. I naively thought I could inform the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the tribe they missed this.” What Jon really stepped into was something like the uphill civil rights battles of the 1960s. “It was straight up racism in conversations with the involved parties including the tribe and BIA; the ‘N word’ was thrown all around.” For his entire legal career, Jon Velie has sought to bring justice to Ms. Davis and other black Seminoles as well as black Cherokees.


Jon Velie graduated from University of Oklahoma Law School in 1993. As an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley he was a Native American studies major. During law school he was a research assistant for Rennard Stickland, a renown Indian Law scholar who is now Dean of Oregon Law School. Before attending U.C. Berkeley, Jon had already developed an affinity for Native American issues. As a child he grew up in the Absentee Shawnee tribal community. Many of his friends were from the tribe and he was exposed to sacred activities otherwise unseen by outsiders. His father, Alan Velie, taught the first course in contemporary Indian studies.

Alan Velie was a Shakespearean professor at the Oklahoma University in the 1970s in the midst of the American Indian rights movement when he was approached by Native American students and agreed to teach a course on American Indian literature. At the time, all the courses taught about Native Americans were concentrated on the past and more in the anthropological sense. He now travels the world talking about Native American literature and has written seven books on the subject.


Unbeknownst to most Americans, the Five Civilized Tribes (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, and Creek) have had long traditions of African membership and enslavement. The Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes had a form of African slavery that closely mirrored that of Southern white plantation owners. The Seminole tribe, however, has had a unique relationship with its African members. The Seminole tribe and its African members (commonly referred to as Freedmen Freedmen) have coexisted together since the 16th Century. Many slaves of white plantation owners ran away to live with the Seminole tribe. Both Seminole Wars were fought over the number of runaway slaves who lived with the tribe. African members could intermarry and take on positions of leadership. Many served as translators between the Spanish, the tribe, and southern white plantation owners.

During the Civil War, the Five Civilized Tribes fought with the Confederacy against the Union. After the war, all of the tribes signed treaties with the United States government in order to maintain their sovereignty and reinstitute an autonomous government. In all of their treaties, there were clauses ordering the tribes to free their slaves and treat them and their descendants equally. Over the years, Congress and the courts have enforced the treaties to assure equal rights for the black Indians. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Congress set up the Dawes Commission to record all the members of respective Indian Tribes. Their records are called the Dawes Rolls. The commission recorded black Indians on separate rolls for all of the tribes. Cherokees and Seminoles that were ¾ white were recorded on a “full blood” list while their black members were enrolled on the Freedmen list. The quantity of Indian blood of each black Indian was not recorded by the Dawes Commission…

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