If you read mainstream media news reports about the Cherokee Freedmen, you may be scratching your head by now and wondering why the Cherokees are so racist. How could they just up and kick all the black people out of the tribe? They aren’t racists and they haven’t kicked out the black people. You need to read this information.
Who are the Cherokee Freedmen?-As you read about this group in current articles, it is important to define who they are. The Cherokee Freedmen currently fighting for citizenship are descendants of former slaves held by some Cherokee individuals. The Cherokee Freedmen as mentioned in current news articles are sometimes referred to as non-Indian Freedmen because they are not blood descendants of an individual listed on the Dawes Rolls as a By Blood Cherokee, Delaware, or Shawnee.
Are the Cherokee Freedmen the descendants of Cherokee Nation’s slaves? -The Cherokee Nation never had slaves. Some Cherokee individuals who lived in the Cherokee Nation did, though. In 1863, the Cherokee Nation emancipated all slaves within its territorial jurisdiction. In 1866, those Freedmen and their descendants were made citizens of the Cherokee Nation. Many freed slaves from around the United States flocked to Indian Territory following the Civil War, but only those Freedmen who were living in Cherokee Nation during a specific time frame were granted citizenship into the Cherokee Nation.
Is the Cherokee Nation breaking the Treaty of 1866? –This is the major claim of the Freedmen suing for citizenship, but the Cherokee Nation asserts that this claim is false. Ongoing court cases will determine whether or not the Cherokee Nation has broken the Treaty of 1866, and the Cherokee Nation has stated that it will abide by the court’s ruling.
Here are the major points of both sides of the debate:
Article 9 of the Treaty of 1866 stated, “…all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as all free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months, and their descendants, shall have all the rights of native Cherokees.” To the Freedmen, this means that they (as the descendants of former slaves and free colored persons) have the right to citizenship because of this article.
However, the Cherokee Nation argues that subsequent legislation reversed the terms of this Treaty. One such reversal is seen in the Section 26 of the Congressional Act of 1902 which stated, “The names of all persons living on the first day of September, nine teen hundred and two, entitled to be enrolled as provided in section twenty-five hereof, shall be placed upon the roll made by said Commission, and no child born thereafter to a citizen, and no white person who has intermarried with a Cherokee citizen since the sixteenth day of December, eighteen hundred and ninety-five, shall be entitled to enrollment or to participate in the distribution of the tribal property of the Cherokee Nation.”
Also, the Five Civilized Tribes Act of 1906 stated, “That after the approval of this Act no person shall be enrolled as a citizen or freedman of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, or Seminole tribes of Indians in the Indian Territory.” According to this information, the Treaty of 1866 no longer held guarantees for the descendants for any citizens of the Cherokee Nation. According to these acts, NO new citizens could be enrolled in the tribe: Freedmen, Cherokee, or otherwise. The next legislation that affected the citizenship status of descendants was the 1975 Cherokee Nation Constitution which set forth membership requirements for the tribe. The Cherokee Nation Constitution was most recently updated in 2003 and can be accessed here.
Did the Dawes Commission put people on the Freedmen roll just because they looked black?– The short answer to this question is “No.” Mainstream news media sometimes portray the Dawes Roll process like sorting socks… the white ones went on this list, the red ones went on this list, and the black ones went on this list. This is a grossly false oversimplification of how the rolls were taken.
In 1906 the Dawes Commission took a census of all citizens in the Cherokee Nation, dividing them into 5 major groups: Cherokees by Blood, Adopted Shawnees by Blood, Adopted Delawares by Blood, Freedmen, and Intermarried Whites. It is the descendants of those individuals listed on the Freedmen rolls that are currently suing for citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.
Individuals had to fill out applications and attend interviews in order to be placed on the rolls in any category. According to the National Archives, two-thirds of Dawes Roll applicants were ultimately rejected. Some rejections occurred because individuals could not provide sufficient proof of their ancestry or citizenship, others because their claims were obviously false.
But currently the biggest complaints about the Dawes Rolls are in regards to the categories in which individuals were placed and the blood quantums that were recorded. These “mistakes” occurred for the same reasons as the rejections did: insufficient proof or false claims. There were individuals who may have been part Cherokee but who ended up on the Freedmen or Intermarried Whites lists with no recorded blood quantum because they simply could not prove through required documentation that they had Cherokee ancestry. There were individuals who provided to the Dawes Commission blood quanta that were lower than their actual blood quantum because they sought to protect themselves from having their assets controlled by the BIA (anyone with over 1/2 degree Cherokee blood was considered uncivilized and appointed an agent who took control of their financial affairs).
There are undoubtedly individuals who were classified as Freedmen on the Final Rolls who did have Cherokee ancestry. The same can be said for Intermarried Whites. The Dawes Rolls were compiled based on what was proveable, not how people looked.
How long had the Freedmen been members of the tribe? – The individuals who were affected by the 2007 vote had officially been members of the Cherokee Nation since the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2006 Lucy Allen case. According to the opinion of the court, the wording of the Cherokee Nation’s constitution was not specific enough to require an ancestor on the by blood rolls, and therefore any laws requiring such were unconstitutional. This opinion repealed a 1980’s citizenship law that required a By Blood ancestor and the acquisition of a CDIB card.
The court ordered that “if the Cherokee people wish to limit tribal citizenship, and such limitation would terminate the pre-existing citizenship of even one Cherokee citizen, then it must be done in the open.” As a result of the ruling, about 2,800 Freedmen and 9 Intermarried Whites descendants enrolled and were extended citizenship in the Cherokee Nation. These individuals still receive tribal benefits while courts are deciding whether or not the 2007 vote of the Cherokee people can stand.
Why were the Freedmen removed from the tribe?- First, not only the Freedmen but also the Intermarried Whites descendants were removed. The 2006 court ruling indicated that “The Constitution could be amended to require that all tribal members possess Cherokee blood,” but ordered any change in citizenship requirements to be done in the open. Following this decision, a ballot initiative for the May 2007 elections was added regarding amending citizenship requirements in the Cherokee Nation Constitution. However, citizens of the Cherokee Nation created a petition to hold a special election to vote specifically on citizenship requirements. The petition garnered the required number of signatures, so on March 3, 2007, registered Cherokee voters as well as the Freedmen voted on whether or not the citizenship requirements on the Cherokee Nation’s constitution should be amended.
By a margin of 77% to 23%, the voters decided that “citizenship would be limited to those who are original enrollees or descendants of Cherokees by blood, Delawares by blood, or Shawnees by blood as listed on the Final Rolls of the Cherokee Nation commonly referred to as the Dawes Commission Rolls closed in 1906. This amendment would take away citizenship of current citizens and deny citizenship to future applicants who are solely descendants of those on either the Dawes Commission Intermarried Whites or Freedmen Rolls.” As is clearly stated in the wording on the ballot, the vote did not effect all Freedmen descendants, nor did it effect all black people in the tribe. It affected only those who were “non-Indian” as proveable by the Dawes Rolls. The Cherokee Nation estimates that it still has 1,500 tribal members who are the descendants of freed slaves. Their citizenship was not affected by the vote because they ALSO have a descendant on a By Blood roll.
Are the Cherokees racists?-No. There are undoubtedly racist Cherokees just like there are racists in every other cultural group. But applying the racist label to all Cherokees or to the Chief of our Nation is very hurtful and quite undeserved. The Chief and the tribe believe that all people are equal, but they do not believe that all people are Cherokees. The efforts to make our tribe a tribe of Indians is not discriminatory; it is an effort to preserve our shared link to an ancient people that inhabited this continent before Europeans ever knew it existed. It is an effort to honor the unique sacrifice and struggle of an indigenous people whose language and culture have been nearly exterminated by malicious federal and state legislation. We see our Nation as a nation of the descendants of a pre-historic people, not as a political nation with geographical boundaries. I, personally, am an Irish Cherokee married to a Mexican-American and an aunt to beautiful African-American Cherokee nephews. I love my Mexican-American husband and my sister loves her African-American one, but I do not believe that either of these men are Cherokees. It should also be noted that the Cherokee Nation will only grant citizenship to the adopted children of even full-blooded Cherokees only if a biological ancestor was on the Dawes rolls. These examples point to the fact that the Cherokee Nation as an entity is not racist, it is merely striving to preserve its cultural heritage and lineage of the Aniyunwiya- the original Cherokee people.
Aren’t all Cherokees automatically citizens of the Cherokee Nation?- Not all Cherokees are citizens of the Cherokee Nation. There were many Cherokees who chose not to sign the Dawes Rolls in the early 1900’s, so their descendants today are not eligible for citizenship. Further, there are 3 different federally recognized Cherokee tribes in the United States, each of which have different tribal governments and different citizenship requirements. To be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, one must apply for citizenship (also called tribal registration) via an application and submission of the required legal documents.
Why hasn’t the news written about any of these things? –Communication studies have shown that the reporting on this issue has been largely one-sided. Reporters omit historical facts and details because they are hard to capture in just a few words. This controversy has been referred to as a “judicial jungle” because of the numerous federal, state, and tribal legislation and rulings that have played a part over the past 140+ years. There may be other factors at play, too, such as capturing an audience by augmenting the controversy.
Where does the controversy stand now? -Just last week a Federal Court ruled that the Freedmen could not sue the Cherokee Nation as an entity but that they may be able to file suit against Cherokee Nation officials. Additionally, some members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), including Rep. Diane Watson (D-California), have drafted legislation to cut federal funding to the Cherokee Nation and suspend their casino gaming operations unless the Freedmen are reinstated as citizens. This bill would deny the Cherokee Nation an annual $300 million dollars from the United States government; this money currently comprises 64% of the annual budget for the Cherokee Nation.
Doesn’t the CBC understand the facts behind the Freedmen controversy? -Diane Watson is the main informant of the CBC on the Freedmen issue, and she believes she understands the situation perfectly. She has declined invitations to meet with the Cherokee Nation’s Chief Chad Smith and other tribal officials. The Cherokee Nation tried to present information at a CBC forum, but their attempt at showing their “side” of the controversy failed.
In addition to advocates who are Cherokee Freedmen, Watson uses two non-Freedmen Cherokees to promote the Freedmen issue, including Former Chief Joe Byrd who had suit brought upon him during his administration by the Cherokee Nation itself, and a Cherokee Nationalist who believes the Freedmen should be made citizens because the Cherokee Nation needs to “control their destiny.” Neither of these men are well-respected within the Cherokee community because of the devastation they have both brought upon the Cherokee people living in Oklahoma.
Can’t there just be a joint meeting or something for both sides to work out the issue?- There have been meetings attended by both the Cherokee Nation and the Freedmen but unfortunately they have not ended well. Both the Cherokees and the Freedmen activists are very emotional about their positions on the issue. Because the emotions run so high, little progress has been made in bridging the divide between the activists on both sides.
The Cherokee Nation has tried to bring understanding to the issue through the use of two different websites: www.meetthecherokee.org and www.cherokeenationfacts.org. Also, an Oklahoma resident by the name of Heather Williams has appeared before Congress and in numerous publications on behalf of the Cherokee Nation. She is the descendant of a Freedman but is a member of the Cherokee Nation because she ALSO descends from a Cherokee listed on the By Blood roll. The Cherokee Nation has also offered free help to people who think they may be eligible for citizenship.
Who is affected while the courts decide?- The Freedmen and Intermarried Whites descendants who do not have an ancestor on the By Blood rolls cannot currently be granted citizenship. However, those non-Indian individuals who enrolled after the 2006 court case are still extended benefits while the court cases are pending. Any individual, regardless of race or other heritage, who can prove lineage to at least one ancestor on the By Blood Dawes Rolls can apply for citizenship in to the Cherokee Nation.
Where can I read more about this for myself?- It is difficult to find information that is not affiliated with activists on either side of the issue. Reading newspaper articles merely scratch the surface, as has already been discussed. But a good place to start is by trying to understand the Dawes Rolls. Kent Carter, Director of the National Archives Fort-Worth Branch, has written an informative piece that can be found here. You can also browse the Dawes Rolls and the application jackets for those who were placed on it (or rejected) by visiting the National Archives. Next, you can read the 1866 Treaty which the Freedmen claim proves their legal right to citizenship. The Cherokee Nation has also included a press kit with cited sources and timelines on their website. When you look through information that comes up with Google sources, always keep in mind the author and the intended audience, as that always has a heavy impact on the message itself. The Wikipedia page explaining the controversy, for example, was generated by the self-described activist against the Cherokee Nation and as a result the page is often biased in information.
Good luck and please leave a comment!