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The Cherokee Freedmen Debate

Early in the 1800s, some Cherokees acquired slaves, and in the 1830s, enslaved African Americans accompanied the Cherokees when the federal government forced them to move to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), where the tribe struggled to rebuild its culture and institutions. By 1861, there were 4,000 black slaves living among the Cherokees.

After the Civil War, the tribe signed a treaty that granted former slaves, or freedmen, “all the rights of Native Cherokees.” But in 2007, Cherokees amended their tribal constitution, making “Indian blood” a requirement for citizenship. As a result, some 2,800 descendants of Cherokee freedmen were excluded from membership.

Chad Smith

Chad Smith—the right to define tribal membership

By the 1980s, the Cherokee Nation was deluged by citizenship applications based on claims of Cherokee ancestry. Chad Smith insisted that the 2007 disenrollment of the Cherokee freedmen had nothing to do with race. Rather, he said, it was about the right of Cherokees to make their own laws governing membership and apply them to all.

Photograph by R. A. Whiteside

Marilyn Vann

Marilyn Vann—the fight to retain tribal status

Some descendants of the Cherokee freedmen have filed a lawsuit to regain tribal citizenship. They claim the 2007 amendment to the Cherokee tribal constitution ignores history and violates the treaty of 1866.

Photograph by Rick McCormick
Courtesy Marilyn Vann