It will surprise many to know that slavery has always been a part of the Cherokee culture. Long before Europeans came over, anyone captured in war was enslaved at least temporarily. Sometimes the Blessed Women would have them sent home or released. Sometimes the slaves were adopted into the tribe. But for many, they were tied up outside the house with the dogs and forced to perform menial work for the family.
|Rounding up runaway Cherokee slaves|
After the colonies were established, these slaves were sometimes traded for food and goods. Then the English began capturing Native Americans for the English plantations in the Caribbean. Between 1670 and 1715 it is estimated that between 24,000 and 51,000 were sold in the British Slave markets.
At this point, Cherokee also purchased slaves including African slaves. From the 1700’s through the mid 1800’s the Cherokee and the other “Civilized Tribes” purchased African slaves to help on their plantations. By 1835, 7% of Cherokee families owned slaves. When the Cherokee and the other Civilized Tribes were forced to relocate to Oklahoma, slaves accompanied their Native American owners on the Trail of Tears.
|Cherokee Confederate Reunion 1903|
In the American Civil War, the Five Civilized Tribes aligned with the Confederacy. But, after his capture and parole, the Cherokee Chief John Ross sided with the Union and rejected the Confederate Treaty. This led to a split amongst the Cherokee and two governments were formed. The pro-Union government passed two emancipation acts in February, 1863 that established all slaves as “Freedmen.”
After the Civil War, the two factions continued and each tried to negotiate with the United States. The Pro-Union faction was ultimately selected to represent all of the Cherokee and signed a reconstruction treaty that granted Cherokee citizenship to the Freedmen and their descendants. The other Civilized tribes also signed treaties and only the Choctaw refused to include Freedmen as citizens of their tribe.
The Cherokee constitution was revised later that year to give Freedmen the option to return to Oklahoma and become Cherokee citizens or to leave and become United States citizens. Differences of opinion continued to complicate the role of the Freedmen for the years following, including whether the Freedmen shared in Cherokee assets and property rights.
In 1887, the U. S. Congress passed the “Dawes Act” to promote the “assimilation of Native Americans by extinguishing tribal government.” As a part of the act, the “Dawes Commission” required registration of the American Indians of each tribe in the Indian Territory under the categories: Indians by blood, intermarried whites, and Freedmen. Even though some Freedmen had Cherokee parents or Cherokee blood, the commissioners usually listed them on the Freedman’s role.
In 1970, the former Five Civilized Tribes’ right to vote for tribal leaders was restored by Congress in the “Principal Chiefs Act.” Freedmen participated in the election. A new constitution was drafted in 1975 and it defined citizens as those proven by reference to the final Dawes Commission rolls.
In 1983, Principal Chief Ross O. Swimmer issued an executive order stating that Cherokee citizens must have a “Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood” in order to vote. The CDIB cards were issued based upon the Dawes Roles for “Indians by blood” category only. This blocked Freedmen from voting.
On March 7, 2006, the Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal ruled in favor of Lucy Allen, a Freedmen descendant, that acts barring Freedmen descendants from tribal membership were unconstitutional giving back citizenship to Freedmen descendants.
|Chad "Corntassel" Smith|
But later that year, Principal Chief Chad “Corntassel” Smith called for a constitutional convention to amend the constitution to deny citizenship to the Cherokee Freedmen descendants. The Tribal Council voted 13-2 in favor of the amendment and it went before the citizens for ratification. In spite of appeals by the Freedmen descendants, the amendment passed once again denying citizenship to Freedmen descendants. In 2011, after numerous court battles, Cherokee District Court ruled the 2007 amendment void by law because it conflicted with the Treaty of 1866 that guaranteed Freedmen rights as citizens, but this ruling was reversed by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court.
And on it goes. As of today, the Freedmen descendants are not recognized as citizens of the Cherokee Nation. There are, of course, continuing lawsuits pending.
Author of "The First Raven Mocker"
Book One of the Cherokee Chronicles
Available at bookstores, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com