Mary Louise Kelly, NPR, February 25, 2021
The Cherokee Nation’s Supreme Court ruled this week to remove the words “by blood” from its constitution and other legal doctrines.
The words, added to the constitution in 2007, have been used to exclude Black people whose ancestors were enslaved by the tribe from obtaining full Cherokee Nation citizenship rights.
There are currently some 8,500 enrolled Cherokee Nation members descended from these Freedmen, thousands of whom were removed on the Trail of Tears along with tribal citizens.
“The Freedmen, until this Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruling, they couldn’t hold office, they couldn’t run for tribal council and they couldn’t run for chief,” says Graham Lee Brewer, an editor for Indigenous affairs at High Country News and KOSU in Oklahoma. “And I would argue that that made them second-class citizens.”
Black Freedmen and their descendants have long fought to maintain their citizenship rights, which were stripped from them in 2007 with the “by blood” amendment.
Monday’s ruling calls those words “a relic of painful and ugly, racial past” and draws comparisons to the lingering effects the racist Jim Crow laws had on Black Americans.
The decision comes after a federal judge ruled in 2017 that by excluding Freedmen from its citizenship rules, the Cherokee Nation violated a treaty it signed in 1866 with the U.S. government. The treaty granted citizenship to the formerly enslaved people.
Brewer, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, explains that citizenship rights grant access to services such as tribal health care, scholarships, housing programs and more. For many descendants of Freedman, he notes, the Cherokee Nation health care system is their only option for health care.