Expelled Black Cherokee descendants fight back
By Charlene Muhammad
Updated Apr 24, 2007 - 12:08:00 PM
The Cherokee Nation’s recent vote to revoke tribal citizenship of approximately 2,800 Black Cherokee descendants, or Freedmen, in Oklahoma drew widespread publicity and incited anger, sympathy and curiosity: Why did this happen? How did this happen? What are the implications of this happening? And who or what is at the root of this division?
Ousted members and their supporters have deemed the move racist and illegal, and are calling for a federal probe into any possible breaches of federal treaties. The Cherokee Nation, however, continues to stand by its Mar. 3 “special election,” refuting charges of any wrongdoing.
“The Cherokee Nation deplores racism in all its forms and we are deeply saddened by recent misrepresentations of our policy and history. We ourselves have suffered bitterly from racism…We welcome every eligible Cherokee citizen regardless of his or her other racial heritage,” stated Mike Miller, Cherokee Nation Communications Officer.
The dismissals of the Black Cherokees, descendants of slaves absorbed into the Cherokee Nation, grew from its 1975 Constitution which provided that all members must be proven citizens according to the Dawes Commission Rolls. The tribe interpreted this to exclude the Freedmen and their descendants, and anyone without a Cherokee ancestor.
According to www.archives.gov, the Dawes Rolls, also known as the Final Rolls of the Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory, was a commission established in 1893 by President Grover Cleveland in order to negotiate land with the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole tribes, and is named after the Commission’s chairman, Henry L. Dawes.
Under the Dawes Rolls, Indians were stripped of their land, which was then divided among five tribes—the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole—and given to individual members within the tribes, according to proof via their listing on the Rolls.
One problem, according to Marilyn Vann, President of the Oklahoma-based Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, is that some of the Cherokee were removed from the Rolls after they died, leaving their descendants unidentifiable by the Rolls, although they had other written proof.
Ms. Vann told The Final Call that the descendants’ memberships did not begin with the Dawes Roll, but with a treaty between the Cherokee Nation and the United States.
Article 9 of the July 19, 1866 Treaty with Cherokee Nation Articles Pertaining to African Cherokee Citizens and Ending Slavery in the Nation, which was ratified July 27, 1866 and proclaimed a month later, stated, in part, that the Cherokee Nation “…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.”
Last March, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court (Judicial Appeals Tribunal) declared that denying citizenship rights to the Freedmen is unconstitutional.
Ms. Vann recalled that members of the counsel traveled from city to city, spreading misinformation and using scare tactics to drive a petition for the special election.
“There’s a hidden hand in this, because the Cherokee Nation has been very successful at getting to key people at the Department of the Interior. In an almost identical situation, the Department was quick to force a treaty rights in the Seminole Nation, but not the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Nation spends a lot of time lobbying Washington, D.C., and there are people up there protecting the tribe,” she charged.
In a Mar. 13 letter, 26 members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) expressed shock and outrage over the revocation, questioning the vote’s validity, legality and morality.
“This is blatant discrimination and racism of the worst kind,” wrote Congresswoman Diane Watson (D-CA) in a press release. She put the Cherokee Nation’s annual budget at approximately $300 million a year of which 75 percent is derived from federal funds. Now, she asserted, Black Cherokee descendants are in a position of having to pay federal taxes to subsidize their own discrimination.
“The federal government has a trust and responsibility through treaty obligations and federal statutes to provide for the well-being, health care and education of Native American tribal members regardless of race. Fundamental social justice demands that the Black Cherokees be reinstated in the Cherokee Nation with full rights,” Congresswoman Watson stated.
Gypsy Ohoyo, Chairman of the Freedmen Descendants of the 5 Civilized Tribes, Inc., said that the Freedmen face the same rejection from all of the civilized tribes, not just the Cherokee. “We, so-called blood nations, are recognized based on the treaties, but we’re ignored, and you can’t honor the treaty in part. All of the Freedmen have made applications to the nations to which we belong, and they go unnoticed. They say, ‘prove that you’re this,’ and I say prove that I’m not. If it were not so, why did you do a census of the so-called Freedmen to include them in the citizenship? Why did you give my ancestors land,” she questioned.
Yo’Nas Da LoneWolf McCall-Muhammad, National Director of Indigenous Nations Alliance of the Millions More Movement, stated that the long-fought issue hit her personally as her father was full-blood Black and her mother full-blood Native American from the Lakota Nation. If her tribe voted her out of her mother’s home, it would mean denying her mother and her blood.
“It’s not coincidental that the voting took place around the same time that Min. Farrakhan reminded Blacks and Browns of their kinship during his recent Saviours’ Day address, and that it basically was the same week of the anniversary of “Black Wall Street” in Oklahoma. This goes way back,” she stated.
Ms. LoneWolf McCall-Muhammad insisted that Blacks become involved in the issue. “Eighty-nine percent of Blacks have Native American in them. The slave-master is upset now that people are starting to really see what they can do with their sovereignty, and decided to do something, even if it is illegal; but it was illegal when they took the land,” she said.
Exercising their rights
Since the Cherokee Freedmen’s dis-enrollment is not recognized by the U.S. government, it is recommended that the Cherokee Freedmen who were recognized as tribal members in good standing as of March 3, 2007 continue to try to exercise their rights as tribal members and try to get, in writing, any denial of services.
Freedmen tribal members should also request absentee ballots by certified mail to try to vote in the upcoming June 23rd elections for tribal officials, if they are unable to go to their precincts to vote in person.
Soon, a Cherokee Freedmen Fact Sheet will be available on www.freedmen5tribes.com for those who have questions regarding the circumstances of the Cherokee Nation’s recent vote and the Freedmen position on the vote.
The next meeting of the Descendants of Freedmen Association will be held at the Divine Love Christian Fellowship, located at 500 N. F Street in Muskogee, Oklahoma beginning at 1:30 p.m. Updates will be given on the political situations of the Creek and the Cherokee Nation Freedmen. The press and public is welcome to attend. For more information, email email@example.com.