Cherokee Nation Addresses Bias In opposition to Descendants of Enslaved Individuals

WASHINGTON – It has been a longstanding point of racial friction between members of the Cherokee Nation and thousands of descendants of black people who had been enslaved by the tribe before the Civil War.

Through a series of legal and political battles, these descendants, known as freedmen, have pushed for the same status as members of the tribe, including the right to run for tribal office and full benefits such as access to tribal health care and housing to obtain. And this week the Oklahoma tribe took another giant step towards solving the problem by removing from its constitutional language that citizenship was based on being “from the blood” of tribesmen identified in a late census 19th century were listed.

The amendment effectively codified in the Cherokee Constitution the ramifications of a 2017 federal court ruling that Cherokee freedmen should have all the rights of tribal citizens based on an 1866 treaty that set the terms for emancipation. Julie Hubbard, a Cherokee Nation spokeswoman, said there were approximately 2,900 freedmen enrolled citizens prior to the 2017 ruling. Another 5,600 have been enrolled since then.

The Cherokee Nation is one of the largest tribes in the country with more than 380,000 enrolled citizens. More than half live on the tribe’s reservation in northeast Oklahoma.

“This is a huge win because it means that the tribal government, including the tribal courts, is working to uphold the 1866 treaty commitment to the freedmen,” said Marilyn Vann, Cherokee citizen and president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association.

The Cherokee and other Indian nations originally living in the south had bought enslaved blacks as workers in the 18th and 19th centuries and brought them with them when they were driven west by white settlers.

After the Civil War, the practice ended with the Treaty of 1866, which also guaranteed that liberated blacks and their descendants “have all the rights and privileges of native Cherokees”.

What followed were broken promises, exclusions, and painful battles that only escalated in the past few decades over whether tens of thousands of descendants of the Cherokee nation’s freedmen were given equal rights.

The latest development came Monday when the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruled that language “through blood” was removed from the Cherokee Nation Constitution and related laws made illegal.

“The” blood “language in the Cherokee Nation Constitution and all laws that flow from that language are illegal, out of date and contrary to the ideal of freedom,” the ruling said. “These words insult and humiliate the descendants of freedmen, much like the Jim Crow laws that stayed on the books of the southern state some fifty-seven years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.”

Sara Hill, the Cherokee Nation attorney general, said she pushed for deportation language after it was used to delegitimize Ms. Vann’s candidacy for a seat on the tribal council. When Ms. Vann announced her candidacy in December, a challenger and citizen claimed that she had failed to meet the tribe’s constitutional requirements “through blood”.

The complaints related to a 2007 amendment to the Tribal Constitution “to restrict citizenship in the Cherokee Nation only to those descended from people who appeared bloody on the Dawes Rolls as Cherokee, Shawnee or Delaware.”

More than 75 percent of Cherokee citizens voted to approve the change in 2007. The Dawes Rolls were lists of tribal members compiled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“I’ve seen these words tossed around like people were trying to give them a new meaning again, and I thought it was time to get those words out of our law and constitution,” said Ms. Hill, “because I see that they were it could be used to belittle and belittle Cherokee Freedmen’s rights. “

Cherokee Nation chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the tribal nation must grapple with its history of human slavery and the ongoing effects of not recognizing the freedmen as citizens. Mr Hoskin said the tribe had shifted towards the recognition of the freedmen following the 2017 ruling, believing that removing anti-freedmen language from its constitution would fulfill a promise made by its ancestors.

“The United States government has violated all contractual obligations,” he said. “The Cherokee Nation is better than that.”

“We should be a nation that keeps its word,” he said. “I think this only confirms that what we are doing is the right thing to do in order to achieve the equality our ancestors believed in 155 years ago.”

Similar legal challenges exist in other tribal communities. The freedmen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation were given the same rights as the Cherokee Freedmen under the same treaty of 1866. But they were disenfranchised by the tribal nation in 1979 and are still fighting for re-entry.

“The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court redeemed their nation by removing racist jargon that established an unfair class system based on race rather than nationality,” said Eli Grayson, a Muscogee (Creek) citizen who has ancestors of freedmen . “Is it good in my heart to know that this tribe can move from unequal government to government for all? I hope the Creek Nation will follow suit. “

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