Honor the Treaties: Cherokee Freedmen Complicate Native Rights Mantra
It was Monday, May 5 when news began to spread that Indian country had lost one of its greatest treaty rights activists, Billy Frank Jr. The 83 year-old died that day along the Nisqually River where he had fought so tirelessly to defend the right to hunt and fish along its shores, four decades earlier. Today, Pacific Northwest tribes enjoy a stable economy buttressed from the salmon harvest—a payoff in large part due to Frank’s devotion to uphold a promise the federal government made to the region’s tribes in the mid-1850s. In a 2007 interview, Frank told me of his activism, “Treaties were what it was all about.”
For those who know anything about Native Americans in this country, most are aware that the treaties they signed with the United States is what sets Native peoples apart from other ethnicities in the country. Yet, with so many of these historic pacts broken over time, it’s no surprise then that a popular mantra among Native American rights groups has been to “Honor the Treaties.”
And so it has been with great wonderment to witness the decades-long drama unfold about the Cherokee freedmen, a class of African-American citizenry in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma who risk losing their place in the tribe despite an 1866 treaty that promised their ancestors otherwise.
On the very day of Frank’s passing, a senior federal district judge in Washington, D.C. heard what could be final arguments in the case, Cherokee Nation vs. Nash, et al, litigation that has cost the Cherokee Nation millions of dollars in a fight to keep the freedmen out of the tribe.
The case, is a culmination of 11 years of legal wrangling involving multiple lawsuits, argued in a variety of venues, now pared down into one single and significant lawsuit. It means Vann vs. the Department of the Interior, the first complaint filed in this dispute back in 2002, has been eliminated.
Historically, the Cherokee freedmen were former African slaves of wealthy Cherokee masters. They were held in bondage beginning in the early 19th century until the end of the Civil War. In that time, the tribe enacted and enforced a series of slave codes, and when it came to defend chattel slavery, it fought on the side of the Confederacy. Cherokee Brigadier General Stand Watie was the last in the field to accept defeat. As a result of losing this battle, the tribe begrudgingly signed the Treaty of 1866, freeing its slaves, and promising them and “their descendants, all the rights of Native Cherokees.”
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