Freedmen Facts you Won’t Learn from the News

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: and  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!

10 responses to “Freedmen Facts you Won’t Learn from the News

  1. Thank-You so much for laying this subject out so plainly. As a Cherokee citizen, I have wished that someone could. It bothers me that our tribe is so divided. It seems that it is always the same few who want to create a negative and destructive force against their own tribe. A long time ago I learned that it was not the old timers sitting on the bench outside of the Mill criticing the new barn going up, that were getting things done. It was the ones who were putting up the boards, hammering the nails and actually building that were accomplishing something. I guess there will always those that obviously produce positive changes and those who work to tear things down.

  2. Cherokee Rosa

    Thank you so much for this article that covers this controverial subject in such a well written and easy-to-understand way. I agree with Ah-ga-li. It is sad to see so much descension from some of our people.

    It is my hope that Diane Watson and others will see how they are being used by some of these “nationalists” to further their own agendas. I believe once those in Congress learn the truth, just as you have laid it out here, they will squash HR 2824 in its tracks.

    Thank you again for putting the truth and the facts out there regarding this ugly attack on the Cherokee Nation.

  3. Wow! This is good stuff!

    And thanks for letting us know about the Wikipedia page. I wondered why the information there was always wrong about the Freedmen and the Cherokee Nation and it never seemed to get corrected.

    You did a great job of explaining all the facts here. This makes it easy to see why the Cherokee Nation will win their case in court. The Cherokee Nation should hire you. Thanks!

  4. How nice to see there is someone out there who can express themselves in a civil manner while discussing this controversy. Your article is documented well and I found it easy to follow with the links you provided.

    I would like to see this whole mess settled soon in court. I believe Diane Watson is wrong to be doing what she is doing with legislation to cut off funding to the Cherokee Nation when it is plain to see that the Cherokee Nation has the sovereign right to abide by its own constitution. Which, I might add, is no different from other tribes I am familiar with.

    Barack Obama has already said that congress should wait for the courts to decide this one and I think he is right.

    Thanks again for such an informative article.

  5. Tsalagi Ageyv

    Back when I grew up here most of our Cherokee people were living in abject poverty and many were forced to move out of state just to find work to feed their families. I never knew of anyone back then suing the tribe so that they could be citizens. However, today the Cherokee Nation is prospering and employs around 7,000 people and oddly enough it appears many people want to be a citizen of this tribe. This is the same for many tribes around the country today, not just the Cherokee Nation.

    In 2006 one group of so-called non-Indian Freedmen descendents filed a law suit against the U.S. demanding land allotments, $50 million, and the right to own and operate a casino in the middle of Cherokee Nation’s jurisdictional boundaries. One group filing a lawsuit against the Cherokee Nation, it’s tribal officers and the U.S. demanding citizenship in the tribe have arbitrarily formed their own band calling themselves the United Cherokee Freedman Band.

    There are volumes of present time and historical documents in which one can find facts regarding this issue from all perspectives including the U.S., Cherokee Nation and non-Indian Freedmen history. Informed debate on the issue requires having documentable facts to begin with. Really appreciate the facts that you have presented here.

    The following article by a Cherokee citizen proud of both her Afro-American and Cherokee ancestry shares some facts around the issue and her personal thoughts. Facts clearly prove this is not racial issue. It is however a sovereignty issue. Perhaps we all can learn something that unites us makes us better people.

    Again, appreciate the information you have shared here.

    Tsalagi Ageyv

    What gathers people, nations, and cultures together-shared views, blended life experiences, or the desire to have an understanding of the other, insight…
    Each of us could bring elements and ideas, adding definition of what unity means to them.
    As the grandmother and mother of Afro-American and Cherokee by blood children, and citizens of Cherokee Nation, our families are defined by those relationships we build into our lives and communities. Tribal citizenship starts with blood-ties, then you build the culture.
    The media and public has neglected to see and hear from those of us who are Black-Cherokee by blood citizens in Cherokee Nation. Thereby failing to recognize that we existed before and will continue to long after this ‘issue’ has settled.
    Some will walk away and find another task to attach themselves to and wage war, again. But many of us will walk throughout our life time and our descendents’ in the footsteps of being a blended family of both Afro and Cherokee by blood.
    I am not aware of our journalists of color seeking out the diverse communities within Cherokee Nation beyond a PR spin, yet are quick to proclaim what is happening within our neighborhoods, homes, governments, and thinking in regards to how we live. I’d like to see and acknowledge how the Black politicians (CBC), representatives, and speakers have come into our nation and homes, to spend time with our families to see the exchange of relationships that better represent those portrayed as being “kicked out and purged” from the rolls and nation, in the mis-informed words of Congresswoman Diane Watson, who has refused multiples invitations to come visit our homelands and people.
    We are still here as Black-Cherokee citizens before and after the March 3, 2007 vote, which defined and further embraced our rich cultures, diversity, and acknowledged the unity which can exist between people.
    My children, and theirs, can return to the communities of their ancestors in eastern Oklahoma and still be at home with their relatives. That’s unity! tp
    Twila Pennington
    Cherokee Nation citizen, Blue Clan.

  6. Daniel Thornton

    Thank you for your informative post. One of the hardest things about this issue is seeing the bias that permeated the media coverage. Americans are woefully ignorant about Indian identity and Indian rights. They do not understand that our indigenous nations must survive, not just colorful “Indians” that they can pay to watch dancing at a powwow. If people truly understood that modern Indian law is still guided by the racist language of 19th century Supreme Court decisions and the so-called “plenary powers” of Congress, then maybe there would be the political will to see that indigenous nations are given the same protections of our rights that others have.

    If you read the recent Appeals court decision in this case, there is a quote that is blood-chilling…”Congress can whittle away the sovereignty of tribes at will.” This same premise has been the concern of the UN Committee to Eliminate Racial Discrimination every time the US comes up for periodic review of it’s compliance with the International Convention to End All Forms of Racial Discrimination. To infringe on the self-determination of our nation, through the courts or Congress, is to practise racial discrimination, no matter who does it.

  7. Thank you for taking the time to expain this issue in plain language. As usual, the media has placed the most “newsworthy” spin on the issue – using race to grab the public’s attention. When, the truth is that it is not an issue of race, but an Indian tribe’s inherent right to determine its membership.
    It is unfortunate that Ms. Watson is not taking the time to focus on the major issues in California regarding its tribes as well as other residents in that state.
    I regard to the Freedmen issue, she should, at the very least, make a sincere effort to listen to and/or look at the truth of the matter. Instead, it appears that she came to a conclusion, and is using whatever she can to support to her conclusion/agenda, totally disregarding the truth of the matter or investigating the facts. One would hope that someone in her position and other members of the CBC would exercise some due diligence and conduct a minimal amount of research before jumping to the conclusion that this is a racial issue.
    I agree with Cherokee Rosa, that when Congress learns the truth about 2824,they will squash it in its tracks. I sincererly hope that its members will take the time to learn the truth.
    Thanks again for taking the time to write your informative, straight forward article.

  8. Black Tsalagi by Blood

    Just what sort of proof did our ancestors need to prove to Dawes they were Indians? This reminds me of European Jews who arrived barely alive , with no documents to prove they were Jewish. Yet, they became the State of Israel. When you consider that many Indians had the skin on their bones and nothing else by way of legal papers because they were constantly being displaced, it’s not difficult to see why some might have been placed on Freedmen Rolls, esp. our darker fullblood brethern. What about those with 1/2 Black children? Many of those fullblood spouses were suddenly “Freedmen.” I am opposed to H.R. 2824. 99% of Freedmen descendants are not in need of a financial handout and are doing well. It’s a cultural issue for those whose ancestors were erroneously declared “Freedmen.” But this issue cannot be resolved by “any means necessary” considering the poor state that so many of our Cherokee people live in. We should not hurt our elders, children and infirmed to resolve this issue. The Dawes was seriously flawed but H.R. 2824 is not the solution. Shame on the Congressional Black Caucus! This is all any of us need. For there to be such a fight in the face of a white government that is ultimately looking into dissolving all Tribal Nations…to save some bucks. Imagine people who know nothing and care nothing about the history of the Cherokee and the U.S. Government and see that we’re in danger of losing 300 million in funding.

  9. Denise Abdul Salaam

    I ‘m sick and tired of this controversy! It’s a shame that this will be settled in the court system once and for all! I’m definitely in support of H.R.2824 since it had to come to that because of GREED and RACE! Let’s make it Plain as Malcolm X said!!!!!!!

  10. In the case of the Cherokees, what makes this about greed? Unlike some California tribes who are disenrolling members so that they can make their tribe smaller and therefore get bigger share of casino profits, the Cherokees do not do not disperse per capita funds to individual citizens. Also in the case of the Cherokees, what makes this about race? Cherokees of all races are undeniable citizens of the Cherokee nation because they can prove ancestry to a “By Blood” Cherokee. It is only those individuals who CANNOT prove ancestry to a by blood Cherokee who are not considered citizens by our nation. My nephews are African American AND they are Cherokee citizens BECAUSE they can prove ancestry to a Cherokee as listed on the Dawes Rolls. If this was about race, they would be disenrolled simply because they are black. But that is NOT how it works. So again, what makes this about greed and race? In the words of our brother, “make it plain” to me, cause I just don’t get where you’re coming from.

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