A Letter to the Editor Regarding the Cherokee Freedmen

Kimberly Horton

The Cherokee Nation based out of Tahlequah, Oklahoma has decided to strip “Freedmen” of their Cherokee rights and to expel them from their nation. Freedmen are African American descendants of slaves. The decision to expel them is based purely on the fact that they cannot prove their Native American heritage. The United States government openly disagrees with this issue and has already suspended more than $33 million in funding to the Cherokees and declined to recognize their appointment of a new Tribal Chief that is to take place later this month.

The issue with their decision is that they are basing this purely on race which is promoting segregation from a people who have fought with and supported them in their struggle to remain in existence throughout history. The issue of racism and segregation are pivotal points that the American people have worked so hard to overcome throughout the years. It is also known that some of the Freedman do actually have Native blood, but cannot prove this simply because they were listed as Black on the Dawes Roll. The Dawes Roll was created with the intent of separation and succeeded in that goal to the extent that it is still now affecting the fair and balanced treatment of Cherokee Nation citizens. At the time of the Dawes Roll creation, many governments operated under the idea that if you possessed one drop of Black blood in your veins you were considered Black and nothing else, which was an example of racism in its purest and most malicious form. Because of this incompetent type of thinking, children born in unions between former slaves and Native American Tribal members were recognized and listed as Black on the Dawes Roll.

If the Cherokee Nation chooses to go this route, the perception of Native American culture will drastically change. In recent online news articles I have already begun to observe comments from readers referring to Natives as “racist” and “egocentric.” As a Native American descendant who is also African American and a descendant of slaves I resent this passionately and am almost ashamed to say that I am of Native blood. I have been taught throughout my life by my Grandfather Joe Homer, who is Choctaw, that being Native American is something to be very proud of. My Grandfather fought his whole life to prove that he is a Native American and died fighting to a court system that dishes out the same racism that the Cherokee Nation is forcing upon its loyal people (“Loyal” being the keyword here not BLACK). As someone who has always been proud of my Choctaw heritage, I am hoping that the Cherokee Nation will rescind this hateful act against the people who have long fought with them and not turn into a replica of the very people who they fought from expelling them, simply because they were different.


Kimberly Horton

Kimberly Horton was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and is of African American and Native American descent, with ties to the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes. She is a college student working towards her Bachelor’s of Science in the Journalism field and aspires to have a career in communications. Kimberly is motivated by her passion to make a change and adheres to the quote by the philosopher and writer John Lilly that, “our only security is the ability to change.”

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sagesmith's picture
It's heart warming to see young people take the time to post such a well-written letter on a topic obviously close to her heart. Conversely, it is upsetting to me (quietly following this publication for years) to see an immediate response of name-calling and complaint that her opinion, which may be different from others here, should not be allowed... that she is a fraud, and worse. Since when did we begin to censor the freedom of our press? When were comments not allowed in from readers on subjects of interest to all? It is everyone's right,,, yes, every one of us,,, to be able to freely voice an opinion on any topic we wish, but does that mean that as a response, others are freely able to slam and insult them at the very first opportunity. There was no solicitation of this writer's letter, but does that mean there is only one perspective on any issue presented here. I don't want to see this publication becoming one-sided and biassed. I want to read all sides of a question, because we all benefit from other's points of view. We learn from each other. I agree with other writers here who encourage us that people of the tribes should come together to increase our numbers, not push some out because of uncomfortable discussions. There are so many of us who cannot definitively, prove with paperwork on official record our ancestral membership to a tribe. In old days, there were small scraps of paper, that few might be able to read, that were passed, and saved, or lost in confusion of forced moves, fires, re-location. There was no internet to store information, there were few people willing to help maintain files of people who were often not even given a proper name by the government. (My Grandfather's wife, my Grandmother a Blackfoot, was simply called, Indian Wife, on official documents.. hardly formal proof of membership not alone, of citizenship.) I hope to see others come forward to comment and add their opinions here, without fear of immediate demands for censorship. If we all are to learn and grow and prosper we can't demand only a closed, small select group to be allowed to participate, and only if that comment already agrees with our own opinions. When that day comes, the free press will stop dead in its tracks.
sagesmith's picture
I agree with you here, Amber... the idea of governmental proof is one that is harder and harder to find... as time goes by, it will only get worse, not better. Should we all get ready to give that drop of blood for a DNA test that proves something we've known and cherished all our lives, and has formed us into the people we are today? I'm ready, if it comes to that. It might give some of us peace, but not everyone will need the scientific proof when we have the spiritual in us all along. With 1% of the population as "recorded" it does seem we should stick together, not pry each other apart. It makes me wonder where the motivation in this behavior comes from. I don't believe in discrimination and the idea of being "outed" from our tribal roots because we cannot officially prove our historical connections to it. A tribe might not accept this, fine, but they can't take away our knowledge that we are indeed a part of them.
duwaynesmith's picture
Kimberly Horton deserved to be heard. As a non-Indian (white), I too believe I should be afforded the opportunity to speak out. Since I care what happens in the lives of Indian people (and their tribal sovereignty), to censor my thoughts and others similar to me is a separatist act that will harm Indian people in the long run. While sovereignty has to be maintained, it should be pointed out that the Cherokee Nation was once a slaveholder nation. The Cherokee Constitution of 1827 specifically identified black people as slaves. Years later, any black slaves who had been freed by their masters were identified as "intruders" in the Cherokee Nation and were expelled. This is part of Cherokee history and the history of some other nations in Oklahoma. This history, of course, is not shared by the other hundreds of tribal groups throughout our country. This makes the Cherokee and a few other tribes unique when we talk about institutionalized racism and slavery. It makes them unique when we talk about descendants of Freedmen and women, some of whom have Cherokee ancestors but cannot support this claim by evidence on the Dawes Rolls. Tiya Miles, an African-American scholar, has written a book about this history entitled, Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom. She has just won the MacArthur "Genius Award" for her contribution "to the current discourse on ancestry and citizenship in contemporary America." She deserves to be read if anyone is interested in learning more about the current commentary started by Kimberly Horton's letter to the editor of Indian Country Today. Sure, the Cherokee Nation has authority over who is and is not a member of their tribe. But this is a complex situation. Consider - according to the Cherokee Nation Registration Department in 1996, out of more than 175,000 enrolled members, as many as 87,223 had less than 1/16 degree of Cherokee blood, and the range of Cherokee blood was from "fullblood" to 1/2,048. Within this context, why would the Cherokee Nation be so intent upon disenfranchising approximately 3000 descendants of Freedmen who may have an historical relationship with the Nation. After all, most of the wealth of the Cherokee Nation in the 19th Century was a result of slave labor. All the seminaries and schools of higher learning created by Cherokee industry were still dependent upon the institution of slavery up until the Civil War. Many people are uncomfortable with ambiguity and want things clearly defined. It is either yes or no. But this kind of thinking will not contribute to a much needed dialogue about race in this country. What is just and fair. Is it "us" against "them"? We need some healing here and within that context it is as much of an issue as past boarding school abuse and other acts of racism against Indian people.