Paul R. Lehman, U.S. Government to settle conflict between Cherokee and Freedmen

July 22, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Posted in Disrespect, equality, Ethnicity in America, fairness, justice, Oklahoma education, Prejudice, whites | 1 Comment
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The controversy between the Cherokee and the Freedmen is by no means a new one. Slavery for many of the Cherokee was a way of life prior to the coming of the Europeans; it involved tribal warfare. However, after the arrival of the Europeans, it became more of a business. Being a numerically large tribe, the Cherokee made a practice of raiding smaller tribes, like the Creek, taking their men, women and children and selling them into slavery to the Europeans. With the proceeds from these transactions they were able to acquire many things, including slaves—some African American, Indian, and European American. A sizable number of Cherokee became plantation owners and needed the labor of the slaves. Generally, those Cherokee plantation owners in the South mimicked the attitude and action of their European Americans colleagues regarding the treatment of their slaves.

The controversy involving the freedmen came to the fore after the removal. When gold was discovered in Georgia on land occupied by the Cherokee, the European Americans decided they had to possess that land. Hence, the removal of the Cherokee is commonly known as the Trail of Tears. The misery and hardship encountered during this experience is recorded in many of the history books. However, what is generally left out of the story is the fact that the slaves, African American, Indian, and European Americans also made that trip. They made the trip as the possessions of the Cherokee. The tribe had many laws that restricted the actions and practices of the slaves, especially the African Americans ones. The laws, as one might imagine, gave preference to European Americans, and also created punishment for anyone teaching the African Americans, slave or free, to read or write.

The controversy that the Cherokee and the freedmen face currently came as a consequence of the Civil War. During the war, the tribe was divided between support for the Confederacy and the Union. One faction, headed by Chief John Ross, sided with the Confederacy initially, but after being captured sided with the Union. On the other side, Stand Watie led a group of wealthy plantation owners and actually served in the Confederate Army. In 1863 the Cherokee National Council abolished slavery. This emancipation action did not suit all the Cherokee members, especially those who owned slaves. The real rift came in 1866.

Both factions of the Cherokee were still at odds when the U.S. Government drafted a treaty with them. The differences between the Ross and Watie groups were ignored by the government and the following was presented to the tribe:

The Cherokee Nation having, voluntarily, in February, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, by an act of the national council, forever abolished slavery, hereby covenant and agree that never hereafter shall either slavery or involuntary servitude exist in their nation otherwise than in the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, in accordance with laws applicable to all the members of said tribe alike. They further agree that all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as all free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months, and their descendants, shall have all the rights of native Cherokees: Provided, That owners of slaves so emancipated in the Cherokee Nation shall never receive any compensation or pay for the slaves so emancipated.” –Article 9 of the Treaty Of 1866

From this 1866 Treaty until today, the tribe has been trying to undo the provision of the treaty and made the Freedmen citizens of the tribe. What is interesting about the rationale in trying to remove the Freedmen from the tribe is the fact that many members of the tribe are undistinguishable from European Americans. The slaves and free African Americans did not alter the cultural or tribal practices, but merely conformed to whatever the tribe dictated. So, the only conceivable reason for not wanting to accept the African Americans is their ethnicity and the significance of that ethnicity to those with bias minds. When the tribe was ruled by the leaders who saw no conflict with the Freedmen being part of the tribe, little controversy took place. However, when leadership changed and reflected the attitudes of southern European Americans, then efforts were made to eliminate the Freedmen from the tribe.

The provisions of the 1866 Treaty became more specific in November of that year when the Cherokee Nation Constitution reflected this information:

All native born Cherokees, all Indians, and whites legally members of the Nation by adoption, and all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months from the 19th day of July, 1866, and their descendants, who reside within the limits of the Cherokee Nation, shall be taken and deemed to be, citizens of the Cherokee Nation.(Treaty of 1866)

The controversy centers on the Cherokee tribe wanting to create new criteria for citizenship which would exclude many descendants of the Freedmen and make them ineligible for many of the benefits they have been enjoying for some time. The Freedmen say this action is based on ethnic bigotry; the tribe says it only wants to preserve it cultural integrity and common ancestry. The irony in this statement is that many Cherokee people live as European Americans, if they can, and do not identify themselves as Cherokee unless their ethnicity becomes important.  The fact that European Americans were easily adopted into the tribe based on marriage and other consideration while African Americans were refused citizenship speaks for itself.

Fortunately, the U.S. Government will have a chance to put this matter to rest in the near future. Since the treaty that created this situation did not originate with the Cherokee, one wonders how they believe it is within their power to changes it. If that power does indeed reside with them, how will that affect the treaties the U.S. Government signed with the other tribes? Just thinking.


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  1. I saw on tv that Henry Louis Gates revealed actor Don Cheadle’s freedmen ancestry.

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