Is the Cherokee Nation cutting off its black roots?

When most Americans are reminded of the “Trail of Tears,” the forced migration of Native Americans from their ancient homelands to what is now the state of Oklahoma, they conjure up images of thousands of downtrodden, defeated Cherokee suffering and dying as they trudged into the wilderness. Few know that also on that slow and deadly trek were roughly two thousand African-American slaves, the property of wealthy Cherokees.

The surviving Cherokee and slaves first settled near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, later the capitol of the Cherokee Nation and home to many of the descendants of the slaves, known as Cherokee Freedmen.

In 1863, the Freedmen were made citizens by an act of the Cherokee National Council, which awarded them all the rights and privileges afforded members of their tribe. Three years later, the Freedmen’s standing as Cherokee citizens was further strengthened: a treaty solidified their rights giving federal protection to them and their descendants. This was meant to put an end to any lingering discriminatory practices.

It allowed Freedmen and their descendants to hold positions in tribal government and share in tribal resources demonstrating, in terms of human rights, a generosity far beyond the dreams of any newly freed slave in the South.

Then as abrupt as the snap of a broken arrow, it ended. Citizenship was terminated. Last week, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruled to uphold a tribal constitutional amendment to take away the citizenship of 2,800 descendants of the Freedman.

Reuters, in a filing from Oklahoma City, reported the Court agreed that a tribal vote in 2007 to “kick the so-called ‘Freedman’ out of the tribe was proper.”

“We are not kicking out all the African-Americans. It makes a better sound byte to say the Cherokee are kicking out all the African-Americans and that’s just wrong. It doesn’t matter if you are black or white or red or spotted,” explained Cherokee Nation Attorney General Diane Hammons. “you have to be a Cherokee descendant to be a member of the tribe.”

But that wasn’t a requirement when citizenship was awarded over 140 years ago. As is the case when revoking historic rights and privileges, what was meant in the past is up for interpretation. Marilyn Vann (pictured, right), the leader of the Freedman, is refusing to give up her citizenship. She claims it’s a racist issue and the trouble started brewing long ago with statehood.

“Things started going downhill after Oklahoma became a state. That brought in the idea of white superiority. The majority of Freedmen can trace their ancestry to a specific Indian. We just can’t prove it. There are some very white looking Cherokees. They can’t get Caucasians out but they can get dark people out.”
Hammons denies that the vote and the ruling are racially motivated saying that even though the Cherokees are pursuing this as a legal issue, it an emotional decision.

“With Indian tribes we have very little left and the right to determine our future is something we hold very, very dear. And the Freedman don’t have the right to determine our future. It’s a difficult decision. It’s highly emotionally charged. They don’t understand that the Cherokees are fighting for their right to determine their own citizenship.”

Vann doesn’t buy that. She says Cherokee leaders and their families and friends are protecting their interests; that it was about the land and now it’s about the money, especially casino money.

“Here are these millions of dollars coming in. And I’m the chief. I have my supporters on the council. I have my relatives in certain places. I don’t want these people (Freedmen) voting in these elections. It’s easier to distribute high paying jobs to my supporters. When you’re screaming and making a lot of noise you can keep people from asking questions. You can drown us out.”

The Freedman descendant don’t intend to be drowned out and they are still fighting, with Vann the plaintiff in two lawsuits before the United States Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit. “Our legal rights are promised by law and we want the tribe and the U.S. government to enforce them.”

Hammons is equally adamant and succinct. “We passed a constitutional amendment to make Freedmen citizens. It was the Cherokee constitution that granted citizenship and it’s the Cherokee constitution that can get these people removed.”

Missionaries, who traveled with the 17,000 dispossessed Cherokees and slaves, documented the sickness and death; that those on the trail tried to help each other even as they were dying. After the Civil War there was no segregation or animosity between the Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Freedman as they lived side by side. However the growing divide has now left both groups feeling mistrustful and accusatory as they stake out their positions.

Marilyn Vann can document her Cherokee ancestry. She graduated at the head of her class to become a petroleum engineer who was proud of her citizenship. “If the Cherokee Nation is a great nation, then the Cherokee Nation needs to keep its word.”

Diane Hammons says she is one-quarter Cherokee. While her other ancestors come from Europe, she was raised as a Cherokee. “Even though I might not agree with what was done philosophically, it’s my position to defend the Cherokee. The Cherokee Nation has the right to decide who can be a member of their nation and who cannot.”