Tribal Ruling Raises Dispute Over Slaves Owned by Indians

Ben Fenwick, Reuters, January 15, 2011

A tribal court ruling that the Cherokee Nation must allow descendants of former slaves owned by Indians to be tribal members, has again raised the painful history of the forcible removal of the Indians to Oklahoma in the nineteenth century.

A Cherokee Nation tribal court ruled on Friday that the nation cannot exclude the so-called “Freedmen” from tribal membership even though some of them are not blood descendants of the Indians.

The issue arises because when the U.S. government forced Indian tribes to walk from the Southeast U.S. to Oklahoma in 1831, in what the Indians described as the “Trail of Tears”, some of them brought their African-American slaves with them.

They brought them because the Cherokee owned plantations in the U.S. South. When the tribe was ejected from the land they were allowed to take their possessions with them, including the slaves.

After the Civil War, those slaves were freed and an 1866 treaty with the U.S. required the Cherokee to admit to the tribe the slaves and their descendants, some with Cherokee blood because plantation owners had fathered children with slave women, and some with no Indian blood.

In 2007, the Cherokee tribe voted for a tribal constitutional amendment that revoked the membership of the slave descendants who could not prove Cherokee blood. This stripped more than 2,800 Freedmen descendants of tribal membership, most of them African-Americans. Friday’s ruling invalidates the Amendment.

The case is being heard separately in a U.S. Federal court.

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Vann [Marilyn Vann, a member of the Cherokee Freedmen and president of the organization that represents descendants of the former slaves] said some in the Cherokee tribe did not want to allow the descendants of slaves to vote on issues such as distributing the millions of dollars of tribal income from gambling casinos.

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