The Black West in Popular Culture

KJZZ 91.5 Radio Interview / December 26, 2023

If you’re paying attention to pop culture right now, it certainly seems like Black cowboys are having a moment. From the recent Paramount+ hit "Lawmen: Bass Reeves" to Netflix’s "The Harder They Fall," our image of who was a cowboy in the Wild West is expanding. Alaina Roberts is a historian who studies intersection of Black and Native American life and author of the book "I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land." Roberts spoke with The Show about how some efforts are more successful than others, and more about the historical figure Bass Reeves.

We're Having A Cowboy Moment

The New York Times / August 24, 2023

Alaina Roberts, an American historian who wrote “I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land,” was raised with all the classic images of what a western film looked like: Davy Crockett wrestling a bear, John Wayne squinting through the Texas dust. Her mother loved those films. But when Dr. Roberts started her own career as a scholar, those weren’t the visions of the West that captured her imagination. Instead, she wanted to research stories of her own Black family members, who were enslaved by the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes in what is now Ardmore, Okla. She also grew fascinated by the Buffalo Soldiers, all-Black regiments who policed the plains. “We shouldn’t be afraid of complexity,” said Ms. Roberts, 32, who consulted on the recent documentary series “The Real Wild West,” which focuses on Black and Hispanic cowboys, Buffalo Soldiers, Native leaders and women on the plains. “It doesn’t mean we’re trying to rewrite history."

The Real Wild West documentary series

CuriosityStream / June 29, 2023

The Real Wild West, premiering globally on June 29 on Curiosity Stream in the US along with partner channels worldwide, is the story of the American West – beyond the gunslingers and lawmen — where a diverse group of pioneers shaped a county and built the foundation for modern America. Meet the Black and Hispanic cowboys, female homesteaders, immigrants, and tribal leaders who faced unprecedented opportunity, ambition, fortune, and technological marvels to forge new paths across the wilderness. Directed and produced by Alex Sherratt and Sarah V Burns of Roller Coaster Road Productions (The History of Food, Sound Mysteries, Growing Up Hadzabe, The History of Home), The Real Wild West will cover several subjects and icons from across time, and features experts, authors, and historians, such as Dr. Alaina E. Roberts, award-winning African American, Chickasaw, and Choctaw author and historian.

When Tribal Nations Expel Their Black Members

The New Yorker / July 18, 2022

"As the historian Alaina E. Roberts recounts in I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land (University of Pennsylvania), the Five Tribes were effectively compelled to become settler colonists themselves, displacing Native groups in the West. They also brought with them enslaved Black people, thus further extending the reach of American chattel slavery beyond the Mississippi. In Indian Territory, what had been a set of highly varied, sometimes kin-adjacent forms of enslavement began to harden, and Indian attitudes and practices edged closer to those of white Americans."

Who Belongs in the Cherokee Nation?

The Atlantic: The Experiment podcast / April 7, 2022

"As the United States is becoming a country, they are creating a national culture, and slavery becomes an increasingly important part of that. So things like slaveholding are important to not just the accumulation of wealth, but also being a small, independent farmer. There were Native Americans with huge plantations, and there are people, you know, doing the cotton planting and picking, planting and picking corn."

Unpacking the Complicated History of the Black Cowboy

GEN | Medium / August 13, 2021

Alaina Roberts, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land,” wrestles with the tension between the historical and popular culture depiction of Black cowboys. Her work uses archival research to connect “debates about Black freedom and Native American citizenship, to westward expansion on Native land.” She says that Black cowboys, who did various categories of work, were also a part of settling the West and its territories into the United States.

Juneteenth is a Celebration of Freedom from Slavery. But it Didn't Mean Freedom for All

USA Today / June 18, 2021

Native Americans adopted Black chattel slavery from Europeans as early as the 1500s, said Alaina Roberts, a University of Pittsburgh history professor. But these five specific tribes [the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole] began assimilating into European-American culture in the late 1700s, including owning slaves as a way to accumulate wealth, she said.

10 Fascinating American Cultural Histories

Book Riot / June 14, 2021

The United States has had a bit of a problem with geography for *checks notes* its entire existence, ever since a bunch of refugees came over and, instead of asking for asylum, just took over. That’s a lot of ground to cover (sorry, I had to), so this book ["I've Been Here All the While"] just takes on a tiny bit of that history, exploring how the “40 acres and a mule” offer extended to newly freed slaves intersected with “Indian Territory” and the longstanding conflict between Native and white imperialists when it came to land and property and ownership. What I appreciate about this approach is that we typically view racial and cultural conflict or collaboration in the United States as a White people x [Insert minority group here] issue and not as interactions between two marginalized groups.

Freed Slaves and Native Americans

C-SPAN / June 2, 2021

Alaina Roberts discussed her new book, “I’ve Been Here All the While - Black Freedom on Native Land,” in which she uses archival research and family history to reexamine the land rights of Indigenous peoples, freed African Americans, and white settlers during Reconstruction. This virtual program was hosted by The Newberry.

A Massacre, Not a Riot

Pittwire (Pitt Office of Communications news) / May 27, 2021

“I tell this story, a unification of Black, Native and white narratives, not only as a historian but also as a descendant of all four peoples: white settlers, Indian freedpeople, African Americans from the United States and Native members of tribal nations. On the one hand, it fills me with pride to think of the resilience of my Chickasaw and Choctaw forebears, who took a forced passage to a new land and turned it into an opportunity to create politically strategic and economically successful nations. And I feel honored to possess the rare legacy of historical Black landownership on the Roberts side of my family,” she writes in the book’s introduction.

Is This Land Made for You and Me?: How African Americans Came to Indian Territory after the Civil War (book excerpt)

Lapham's Quarterly / May 26, 2021

During and after enslavement in the United States, the West, and especially Indian Territory, represented freedom, possibility, and amelioration. Rumors that Indian nations would take in runaway slaves or that enslaved people in the Five Tribes—the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole Nations—were treated better than enslaved people owned by whites bred this mythology. While the truth behind these beliefs was far more complex, the West proved to be an attractive destination for an increasing number of Southern African Americans after emancipation.

Native Americans Weren't Alone on the Trail of Tears. Enslaved Africans Were There, Too

CNN / May 9, 2021

"Owning slaves was a part of their strategy to assimilate into American society and it allowed them to be seen as different from other Native people and as more civilized," said Roberts, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. Roberts tells the story of how Oklahoma became a melting pot and the decades of racial tensions that preceded the Tulsa Race Massacre in her new book "I've Been Here All The While: Black Freedom on Native Land."

"I've Been Here All the While" Tells a Unique Slave Story

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / May 6, 2021

When it comes to race, American history is a perpetual factory of both injustices and ironies. At the heart of Alaina E. Roberts’ “I’ve Been Here All The While: Black Freedom on Native Land” is this: The only formerly enslaved Blacks who received any kind of reparations after the Civil War were some of those individuals who’d been owned by Native Americans — the very Natives whom, decades earlier, the U.S. government had driven from the South into what’s now Oklahoma.

Pittsburgh Author's Book Explores 'Black Freedom on Native Land' in the Old West

90.5 WESA FM / April 22, 2021

Roberts is a University of Pittsburgh professor specializing in the intersection of Black and Native American history. But that history is also one she lives, as the descendant of Creek and Chickasaw freed people who once inhabited that very land (though Roberts grew up in California). And it’s a slice of history that can help readers interpret a grim centennial: This May marks 100 years since the Tulsa Massacre, when mobs of whites killed hundreds of Blacks in Tulsa, Okla., and burned down the community known as Black Wall Street.

Black Reconstruction in Indian Territory

15 Minute History / April 14, 2021

Nineteenth-Century Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) was home to a wide array of groups including Native American Nations, enslaved Indian Freed-people, African Americans, White settlers, and others. In a conversation on Black Reconstruction in Indian Territory, Alaina Roberts discusses what Reconstruction might have meant for Black people in what is now called Oklahoma in the years immediately following the Civil War, and why it should be included in broader conversations about Reconstruction.

The Women in the Windows

Pittwire (Pitt Office of Communications News) / March 4, 2021

Pitt Assistant Professor of History Alaina Roberts says, of all the women in the windows, Pocahontas is her favorite. “She was an important intermediary between her people, the Powhatan, and British colonists in Virginia,” she said. “Pittsburgh has a rich and complicated colonial history on European-Native American relations, so it is fitting that a Native woman who did so much is depicted at one of our city’s landmarks.”

The Tulsa Race Riots, history you were not told

Medicine for the Resistance / January 21, 2021

A candid interview with Alaina Roberts: My ancestors were Black and mixed race people... But I did not know that the owners were native people. So that was kind of a mind blowing thing to learn. And then to learn that my particular family’s history which is Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians is particularly under studied. A lot of the work done on Freedmen is on the Cherokees, sometimes Seminoles so I really wanted to kind of rectify that inequality and the sources.

Black Freedom On Native Land: An Interview with Alaina Roberts

Being Human Podcast / December 1, 2020

An interview with Alaina Roberts, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. The interview focuses on Professor Roberts' research and writing, in particular her forthcoming book I've Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land. Listen here or on Soundcloud

At 26, Youngest Woman to Receive a History PhD at Indiana University

Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs, Indiana University /

“I think there’s a reasonable possibility that she will be a leading scholar in her field, if you want to look 10 to 15 years down the line. I think that would mean that she would have earned a reputation as a very original and thought-provoking scholar who looks at the problem of race in American history and in general,” said John Bodnar, IU Bloomington distinguished and chancellor’s professor of history.

In 2017 IEHS scholars made history

IEHS Online The Website of Immigration and Ethnic History Society / December 19, 2017

In 2017, historians entered the fray. Immigration and ethnic history society scholars, especially, have been called to bring historical thinking and analysis to policy issues and public debates about immigration, citizenship, borders, white supremacy, and vulnerable and marginalized communities. Not only do scholars who study immigration history have subject expertise to share that can help us navigate today’s crises, but as educators and humanists, we are also bringing evidence, critical thinking, and knowledge to debates where they are often missing, in a context of epistemological uncertainty.