DECOLONIZING YOUR NEWSFEED
Members of the Cherokee National Council, Tahlequah, Oklahoma, 1889 (New York Engraving and Printing Co.)
The headlines said one thing, but Marilyn Vann, a descendant of Cherokee-owned slaves, knew there was more to the story. After she was offered a role on the Cherokee Nation's environmental commission last year, all of a sudden she had become a "first" - as in the first Freedmen with a seat in Cherokee Nation government.
"Historic making day," tweeted chief of the tribe, Chuck Hoskin, Jr.
But Vann tweeted out a message of her own - a kind reminder: "Freedmen / freedmen descendants have held Cherokee nation elective office prior to Oklahoma statehood," she said humbly and then began listing Black leaders one by one. There was Stick Ross, Ned Irons, Fox Glass. One Cherokee councilman freed and naturalized was Jerry Alberty, whose photograph with other members of the Cherokee National Council in 1889 gives a rare glimpse into reconstruction-era integration within the Cherokee Nation. (He's pictured top row, fourth from left in the cover art, above).
"That's the kind of information we need," said an enthusiastic Hoskin perched on a couch next to Vann during a live recording about Cherokee Freedmen history, this weekend. He's calling on slave descendants to share their family
histories with the Cherokee Nation to reconcile with the tribe's dark legacy.
The "Cherokee Freedmen" represent a class of Cherokee citizens who today descend from former slaves once owned and emancipated by Cherokee masters pre-dating the Civil War. For 155 years, the Cherokee Nation has systematically worked to abrogate a reconstruction treaty that promised the Freedmen full
citizenship including voting rights, running for elected office, and access to tribal government programs, including healthcare. Like a bad romance, it was on again and off again, as the nation, a diverse tribe of intermarried whites, Cherokees, and Blacks worked through one of the most destructive eras for dispossession in Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma.
In the modern Cherokee Nation, things weren't much different. Since the 1980s, descendants of Cherokee-owned slaves have watched tribal leaders break their own laws and invest millions of dollars in lobbying to break an even bigger one - the 1866 treaty - all in an effort to keep the Freedmen
out. A turning point finally came in 2017 when a U.S. District judge upheld the provision, securing their citizenship.
The late-Wilma Mankiller wrote in her 2000 autobiography that the history of slavery would forever cast a shadow on the great Cherokee Nation, though not even she was compelled to atone for the real hardships brought on the enslaved
and their extended families. To be sure, she drafted slippery laws that made it harder on the Freedmen.
Principle Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. in a live broadcast, Saturday, claiming responsibility for 19th-century Cherokee-led slavery on behalf of the
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (Osiyo TV)
For the first time in Cherokee Nation history, Hoskin is accepting responsibility on behalf of the tribe. "Our enslavement for other human beings was simply wrong," he said Saturday as part of a broadcast produced by the tribe's own TV network, Osiyo TV.
The most visible figure of the Freedmen fight was by his side. Vann, 74, helped shed light on a legacy that has taken years for Cherokees and others to understand. The most difficult hurdle has been convincing people that a mostly all-Black citizenry can legitimately hold valid tribal treaty rights regardless of their status as "Indians." This thought scared some Cherokee leaders.
One retired deputy chief, John Ketcher, summed it up this way to me after a public meeting got heated in 2007: "The whole Black nation - they'll all get together, you know that!"
"There were some people in some of the organizations that were not very friendly," said Vann, recalling the tensions that built-up over the course of her twenty years advocating for Freedmen rights. "But there were always some that were very welcoming."
The Cherokee Nation's effort to at once atone for its adoption of chattel slavery, in which a litany of violent slave codes were enacted by the Cherokee tribal government, comes as anticipation is building to place a Cherokee delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives - the first and only title of its kind. The
designation, akin to Puerto Rico's, is a nonvoting post, though committee votes will count on bills being considered, and speeches can be made on the House floor.
In a recent interview with Axios, Kim Teehee, the delegate nominee joined Hoskins to
express optimism about the votes needed to secure the position, saying there is support on both sides of the aisle. If approved, the Cherokee Nation, one of the largest and most powerful sovereign governments in Indian Country, will be the only tribe with such outsized representation in American politics.
Kimberly Teehee and Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. after it was announced on Aug. 22, 2019 in Tahlequah that Hoskin is nominating Teehee as a
delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma)
The stakes are high. There is still residue from all the years that the Freedmen were turned away at the polls and were lied to when they were told they needed to have "Cherokee by blood" to exercise, fully, their treaty rights. That same treaty is the one that outlines
provisions for Teehee's delegate role, a detail that Freedmen champions like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) is aware of, and as chair of the House Financial Service Committee, has on more than one occasion confronted the Cherokee about.
There's also the issue of four other Native nations in eastern Oklahoma that practiced slavery and signed similar reconstruction treaties, though not one is fully in effect like the Cherokee. How these stalemates could hold up
votes to approve the Cherokee delegate provision is something to monitor. For now, the situation drips in latent hypocrisy.
"The Treaty of 1866 is our last treaty with the United States; it's the treaty that brings forward key provisions of every single treaty we ever had with the United States" said Hoskin. "These promises include the very existence of our reservation and our delegate to Congress."
"We must hold the United States accountable."
What does it mean to have a single "supertribe" in Washington, and how will it impact other outlooks for Indian Country? One area that may pack the biggest punch is in the area of tribal justice. Nowhere is the maze of jurisdiction being scrutinized more
routinely than in eastern Oklahoma following the 2020 Supreme Court ruling, McGirt v. Oklahoma. From that decision, there's a sense of autonomy that's been restored. But could that also open up a tragic doorway for in-fighting. Let's hope not.
I've chronicled the Cherokee Freedmen dilemma since 2006 and even devoted my thesis project to this legacy. So, it was easy to compile a smattering of additional materials for you to take in, including a comprehensive reading list of selected texts found in
the Indigenously Bookshelf.
On the shorter side:
- Circe Sturm (Cherokee) was among the first scholars I read in my research about Cherokee slavery and the Blood Politics that
- There's also this piece I penned after the Freedmen were restored their treaty rights in 2017
- And a quick overview about a Cherokee slave revolt in 1842 from a true Elder, Dr. Dan Littlefield who always made time for me
As a journalist, covering Cherokee politics is a favorite past time - there's rarely a dull moment and I always learn something new. One lasting takeaway came from an attorney who taught me the two sides of sovereignty - that it's both the sword and the shield. We need clear-eyed chronicling of these
Appreciate you being here,
Estimated population of the Cherokee Nation citizenry in 1809: 12K
Exact amount the Cherokee Nation received in exchange for 7 million acres of ancestral territory in present-day Georgia: $5M
Total acreage in "Indian Territory" promised by President Andrew Jackson: 13M
Total amount in fines an individual faced for teaching a free Black or slave under a 1941 Cherokee Nation law: $1-$500
Number of lashes a white or Cherokee man would receive for marrying a female slave: 39
For a white or Cherokee woman who married a male slave: 25
Approximate number of Cherokee-owned slaves who attempted a revolt in 1942: 25
Total executed after their capture by the Cherokee Militia: 5
Approximate number of freedmen granted Cherokee citizenship by virtue of the 1866 Treaty With the Cherokee: 2500
Number of years the Freedmen and their descendants were denied their Treaty rights: 155
Estimated population of Cherokee Freedmen enrolled in the tribe in 2022: 8,000
Total treaty-enforced Indigenous delegates to Congress: 1
"Worth the wait."
Thanks, Rick. I was truly touched to hear from so many of you last week about what spoke to you from my first
dispatch back from break. Dawaa'e
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