Posted on September 20, 2011

Cherokee Nation Faces Scrutiny for Expelling Blacks

Alex Kellogg, NPR, September 19, 2011


The Cherokee Nation recently decided to limit its membership to people who can prove they have Indian blood. This strips of their citizenship rights about 2,800 African-Americans who are descendants of slaves once owned by wealthy Cherokees. Those rights include access to health care clinics, food distribution for the poor, and assistance for low-income homeowners.

The move prompted protests among these African-Americans, who are known as Freedmen, because for long periods in the past, they enjoyed equal rights in the Cherokee tribe. But in more recent history, their citizenship rights have been repeatedly challenged.


The Freedmen say they’ve been kicked out of the Cherokee Nation by people who are no more Indian than they are.

“The majority of folks who are members of the tribe . . . have lived lives of white privilege,” says Marilyn Vann, who heads the Descendants of Freedman Association. She says many Cherokees are largely white and are “people who have never been discriminated against in their lives.”

The Cherokee Nation’s Supreme Court ruled in late August that the black Freedmen could be stripped of their citizenship because they can’t prove they have Indian blood. {snip}

Cherokee leaders say it’s not a matter of race, but a simple matter of narrowing the definition of Indian down to those people who can prove they have Indian blood.

“This is not a club; you can’t just claim to be Cherokee and show up and be included,” says Cara Cowan Watts, a vocal member of the Cherokees’ tribal council.


Watts also points out that there are approximately 1,500 black citizens in the Cherokee Nation who have not lost their citizenship rights, because they are not just descended from Cherokee slaves but also from Indians.

It is a largely forgotten footnote of history that some wealthy Indians in the Deep South owned African slaves. {snip}

The Freedmen say the Nation’s decision prevents more than 3,500 blacks from becoming Cherokee citizens, because their applications have never been processed. They claim tens of thousands of Freedmen exist and that many have been discouraged by historic discrimination and other barriers to citizenship blacks have faced, particularly in recent decades.

The Freedmen’s estimates may be sound–many historians agree that at least 10 percent of all people on the Cherokee Trail of Tears were black. The vast majority were slaves, though some were runaways and intermarried, free blacks.