Cherokee Nation Addresses Bias Against Descendants of Enslaved People

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tags: slavery, racism, African American history, Native American history, Cherokee Nation

WASHINGTON — It has been a long-running point of racial friction between members of the Cherokee Nation and thousands of descendants of Black people who had been enslaved by the tribe before the Civil War.

Through a series of legal and political battles, those descendants, known as Freedmen, have been pushing to win equal status as members of the tribe, including the right to run for tribal office and receive full benefits like access to tribal health care and housing. And this week the Oklahoma tribe took another big step to resolve the issue by eliminating from its Constitution language that based citizenship on being descended “by blood” from tribal members listed on a late 19th-century census.

The change effectively codified in the Cherokee Constitution the effects of a 2017 federal court ruling that held that the Cherokee Freedmen should have all the rights of tribal citizens, based on an 1866 treaty that laid out the terms of emancipation. Julie Hubbard, a spokeswoman for the Cherokee Nation, said there had been about 2,900 enrolled Freedmen citizens before the 2017 ruling; another 5,600 have become enrolled citizens since then.

The Cherokee Nation is one of the largest tribes in the country with more than 380,000 enrolled citizens. More than half live within the tribe’s reservation in northeastern Oklahoma.

“This is a big win because what this means is that the tribal government, including the tribal courts, are working to uphold the 1866 treaty obligation to the Freedmen,” said Marilyn Vann, a Cherokee citizen and president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association.

The Cherokee and other Native American nations originally in the South had purchased enslaved Black people as laborers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and had brought them along when they were driven westward by white settlers.

After the Civil War, the practice ended with the 1866 treaty, which also guaranteed that freed Black people and their descendants would “have all the rights and privileges of native Cherokees.”

But what followed were broken promises, exclusions and painful fights that only escalated in the past several decades over whether tens of thousands of descendants of the Freedmen were being afforded equal rights by the Cherokee Nation.

The latest development came on Monday, when the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court issued a ruling that removed the “by blood” language from the Cherokee Nation Constitution and made any related laws illegal.

Read entire article at New York Times

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