A U.S. district court has ruled that descendants of Cherokee slaves have a constitutional right to be enrolled as full members of the Cherokee Nation.
Those descendants, known as freedmen, have a long history with the Cherokee. During the American Revolution, the Cherokee fought alongside colonists. In exchange, they were granted greater freedoms, including the right to take African-American slaves. After emancipation, many freedmen stayed with the tribe and journeyed with the Cherokee in the famed Trail of Tears march, a 900-plus-mile trek to present-day Oklahoma.
For generations, the Freedmen and Cherokee coexisted mostly peacefully. A number of freedmen intermarried, had children, spoke the language and even held tribal council positions.
But in 1887, the federal government created the Dawes Act, which required tribes to identify members based on blood quantum and ancestral heritage. This left many freedmen out in the cold.
In recent years, however, the freedmen have begun to challenge their exclusion from membership. In 2006, the Cherokee Supreme Court ruled that the freedmen had a constitutional right to be enrolled. Chad Smith, then tribal chair, organized a petition among membership to change the tribe’s constitution. Fearful of sharing meager casino profits and access to medical care and education, the membership voted for the change.
In response to the freedmen ban, the federal government imposed economic sanctions against the tribe. It refused to issue millions of needed dollars for housing and other services because of the vote.
While I disagree with any federal attempt to stomp on tribal sovereignty, I do believe the Cherokee were wrong to exclude their black brothers and sisters from membership. They should have known better than to cut out such a devoted and contributing segment of their tribe.
Even as slaves, the freedmen worked alongside their owners, were invited to live in their homes and were granted full Cherokee membership through ceremony and culture. But the federal government’s imposition of harsh enrollment rules drove a wedge between the freedmen and the tribe. The Dawes Act, like just about every other federal policy imposed on Indian Country, created chaos and division.
Now this mistake has been undone. The Cherokee do not plan to appeal the court’s decision. “The Cherokee Nation respects the rule of law, and yesterday we began accepting and processing citizenship applications from freedmen descendants,” the tribe’s attorney general, Todd Hembree, said in a statement. “While the U.S. district court ruled against the Cherokee Nation, I do not see it as a defeat. As the attorney general, I see this as an opportunity to resolve the freedmen citizenship issue and allow the Cherokee Nation to move beyond this dispute.”
Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and author of the memoir “My Mother Is Now Earth.” He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.