Freedmen versus Cherokee Nation

A ruling on the decades-long Freedmen versus Cherokee Nation controversy is out. On 30 August, 2017 the United States District Court for the District of Columbia handed down its long-awaited ruling. The crux of the controversy is whether or not the Cherokee Nation can deny the rights of citizenship to Freedmen descendants-descendants of former slaves of the Cherokee. The rights in question are the right to vote and receive tribal benefits.  These rights were practically undisputed until the year 1983, but has been a point of contention in the Cherokee Nation ever since. The ruling of the court is that the Cherokee Nation cannot deny Freedmen descendants these rights. The background of this issue has its roots in Cherokee history, even before their removal from the Southeastern United States.

Beginnings of the Cherokee Freedmen

Probably more than any other Native American group, the Cherokee attempted to adopt the ways of the white population encroaching upon their lands. One of these ways the Cherokee adopted from their southern neighbors was slavery. The Cherokee enslaved some Native Americans, but enslaved many more African Americans.

Judge Thomas F. Hogan’s opening statement of the ruling is rather candid:
“Although it is a grievous axiom of American history that the Cherokee Nation’s narrative is steeped in sorrow as a result of United States governmental policies that marginalized Native American Indians and removed them from their lands, it is, perhaps, lesser known that both nations’ chronicles share the shameful taint of African slavery. “

After years of attempts to hold onto their lands that had dwindled to parts of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama, the Cherokee were forced out by the federal government to their new homes in the west, the current state of Oklahoma. Cherokees that owned slaves took them with them to their new homes and reestablished their farms there. As might be expected, the Cherokee sided with the Confederacy during the War Between the States, even supplying troops for the effort. Stand Watie, a Cherokee, had the distinction of being the last Confederate general to surrender.

Post-Slavery History of Cherokee Freedmen

In 1863 the Cherokee Nation rescinded its support for the Confederacy and emancipated slaves in the nation. After the war’s end, in 1866, the Cherokee and the U.S. government signed a treaty forcing the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma to grant citizenship to all residents of the nation, including freed slaves. These freed slaves become known as Cherokee Freedmen or just Freedmen. That same year the Cherokee Nation changed its constitution to implement the citizenship requirements of the treaty, making Freedmen full citizens of the nation. It is this 1866 treaty that was at the heart of the legal arguments that led to the ruling.

In 1893 the U.S. congress passed legislation forcing the Five Civilized Tribes, including the Cherokee, to agree to allot tribal lands to individual tribal members.  The intent was to abolish tribal governments and the reservation system. In 1896 congress authorized the Dawes Commission to begin accepting applications for enrollment in the tribes, and thereby receive land allotments and other benefits. The rolls of accepted applicants became known as the Final Rolls, or more commonly the Dawes Rolls. There were separate rolls for Cherokee by blood and Freedmen. Congress closed the enrollment in 1906 and officially terminated the Cherokee Nation. From that point, both Cherokee by blood and Freedmen received equitable treatment in the allotment of land and other benefits.

Recent Developments

In the 1970’s the federal government allowed the Cherokee in Oklahoma to hold elections and develop a new constitution. Freedmen descendants were allowed to vote in Cherokee national elections of 1971, 1975, and 1979. But, that changed in 1983 when the Cherokee Nation cancelled the citizenship of Freedmen and refused to allow them to vote.

The legal basis for the 1983 actions of the Cherokee Nation was that the nation then required a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Since the Dawes Commission listed the degree of Indian blood on the Cherokee by blood roll, but not the Freedmen roll, descendants of the latter could not provide a CDIB. These actions set off a series of legal maneuvers on both sides that climaxed in this week’s ruling. During that time, the descendants of the Freedmen were not allowed to vote in the Cherokee Nation (except for an agreement that allowed them to vote in a 2011 special election for Principal Chief). With the District Court’s ruling, this situation will undoubtedly change.

For the complete ruling from the court, go to:

Historical/Genealogical Information in the Ruling

The court’s ruling includes a detailed history of the Cherokee and their legal entanglements with the United States government. It starts with the Cherokees’ resistance to removal from the southeastern United States to their relocation west, and ends with their current state. Although the focus is obviously on the legal standing of Freedmen, it is definitely a good read for anyone interested in Cherokee history.

If you have an African American ancestor that lived in Indian Territory (currently Oklahoma) during the time of 1896-1906 you may find him or her on the Dawes roll of Cherokee Freedmen. If so, a possible rich source of family history information awaits you in the application – accepted or rejected!  And also, you may be eligible to apply for membership in the Cherokee Nation – a privilege not available for years.

It is too early to tell how this landmark ruling will affect the Cherokee Nation. Will the nation appeal the ruling? How exactly will it enact the necessary changes? When will the changes take effect? Answers to these questions will come in the months and maybe years to come. We will stay on top of this issue and try to keep the DeepRootsInTheSouth community informed.

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