The Cherokee Nation’s Supreme Court ruled Monday that the tribal nation removed the phrase “by blood” from its constitution and other tribal laws. That change formally recognizes that descendants of blacks who were once enslaved by the tribe, known as Cherokee Freedmen, are entitled to tribal citizenship, meaning they are eligible to run for tribal office and access resources like tribal health care .
The recent decision by the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation is a response to a 2017 decision by a U.S. district court, which determined that descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen are entitled to full tribal citizenship rights under a treaty the Cherokee Nation signed with the United States in 1866..
“The rights of freedmen are inherent,” Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Justice Shawna S. Baker wrote in the opinion. “They extend to the descendants of freedmen as a birthright arising out of the oppression and displacement of their ancestors as persons of color registered and commemorated in Article 9 of the 1866 Treaty.”
The history of the Cherokee Freedmen is an example of how complex and stratified the problems of race, inequality and marginalization are in the United States.
Many Native Americans were enslaved along with African Americans during the colonial period: Brown University historian Linford D. Fisher estimates that 2 to 5.5 million Native Americans were enslaved from the time of Christopher Columbus to about 1880 .
But some wealthier tribal citizens, particularly in the southeastern tribes who had adopted certain standards from the white settlers, also practiced slavery. That includes the Cherokee people, some of whom in the early 1800s had begun enslaving African Americans.
Then, in the late 1830s, the US government forcibly expelled the Cherokee from their homeland and ordered them to move to present-day Oklahoma, an exodus known as the Trail of Tears. However, what is not so well known is that enslaved African Americans made the journey together with the Cherokee citizens who enslaved them.
Approximately 4,000 enslaved blacks lived among the Cherokee people in 1861, according to the National Museum of the American Indian.
The tribe abolished slavery in 1863. And shortly after the Civil War ended, the Cherokee Nation signed a treaty with the United States government that granted full citizenship rights to those previously enslaved by Cherokee citizens.
But in practice, Freedmen were often denied those rights and excluded from the tribe, wrote Lolita Buckner Inniss in a 2015 article published in the Columbia Journal of Race and Law. Over the past decades, Cherokee Freedmen has fought to protect those rights through various legal procedures.
Freedmen have long fought to protect their rights.
In 2007, the Cherokee Nation amended its constitution to restrict tribal citizenship to those of “Indian blood.” That drove about 2,800 descendants of Cherokee Freedmen from the tribe, the website of the National Museum of American Indian States.
Chad Smith, the chief head of the Cherokee Nation at the time, argued that the tribe was a sovereign nation and therefore should have the right to determine who qualifies for tribal citizenship. But the Freedmen fell back, resulting in a series of legal battles over the next decade.
In 2017, a federal district court ruled in favor of the Libertos, a decision that the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation has now upheld.
“The ‘blood’ language found in the Constitution of the Cherokee Nation, and any laws that flow from that language, are illegal, outdated and repugnant to the ideal of freedom,” Baker wrote in the recent opinion. “These words insult and demean Freedman’s descendants in much the same way as the Jim Crow laws that are on the books in the southern states some fifty-seven years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” .
Cherokee Nation Chief Director Chuck Hoskin Jr. praised the decision.
“The Cherokee Nation is stronger when we move forward as citizens together and on equal footing under the law,” he said in a statement Monday. “… The court has recognized, in the strongest terms, the commitment of our forefathers to equality 155 years ago in the Treaty of 1866. My hope is that we all share that same commitment in the future.”
About 8,500 descendants of Freedmen are currently registered as citizens of the Cherokee Nation, according to a press release from the tribe.