The Cherokee Dred Scott Decision

Chuck Trimble

We read and absorb as truth the accounts of idealistic observers like Thomas More, Amerigo Vespucci, Las Casas, Rousseau, and others who bolster our view of our ancestors. We paint our people as innocents, pristine in relationship with all of nature, and pure in social structures and systems.

In our struggle for the rights of our Native people and our tribal governments, we point out the terrible things that we have suffered over history. Those accounts are manifold in history books in our research—the taking of our lands and our forced removal from primeval homelands, and the slaughter of our people from the earliest days of contact with the European immigrants. We have adopted the terms genocide and holocaust to describe the killing of our tribes through pestilence, removal, and unprovoked warfare. And we grieve the memory of the massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho families at Sand Creek in Colorado, the slaughter of Cheyenne men, women and children at Washita, rampant slaughter of the inhabitants of Indian Island in California, and the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee Creek.

Often we recall these things to put our conquerors and colonizers on a guilt trip to loosen up federal purse strings to meet the needs of our people, and to stir our political adrenaline to fight for our rights as the citizens of the first nations on this continent.

So it is painful in reading history to learn truths that disappoint our preconceptions of our nobler selves—to learn that we are just humans after all. Increasingly we are shaken to consciousness to this fact by actions in our tribal nations today.

Such is the case in the ongoing disenfranchisement of the Freedmen Blacks of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

It is true that the newly emancipated slaves of Cherokee plantations were forced onto the tribe by the victorious Union as punishment for having fought against the North in the Civil War, and the tribe was forced to incorporate them into their citizenry.

It is true that early on Cherokee entrepreneurs, trying to meet expectations of the conquerors and colonizers to assimilate, had become slave owners because it enabled them to compete agriculturally, especially in growing cotton. So, it can be said—albeit in gross irony—that as part of their efforts to become “civilized” Native farmers adopted slavery.

These Cherokee farmers and entrepreneurs were the core of the group that negotiated and signed the 1835 Treaty of New Echota which accepted removal west to Indian Territory. And it was the slave owners largely that formed the first wave to emigrate west on the Trail of Tears. But for these, the Cherokee elite, the Trail of Tears was facilitated by the slaves they took with them, and the hundreds more that were purchased along the way, most of them to be sold in the new territory.

And in the new territory, during the Civil War, the issue of slavery split each of the Five Civilized Tribes, and dragged them into the cruelest internecine warfare imaginable. Cherokee Stand Watie, General in command of the combined tribal troops fighting for the South and the last confederate general to surrender his forces at the end of the War, waged a cruel, merciless campaign against the anti-slavery forces of Apothle Yoholo, Creek leader of the ragtag intertribal group loyal to the Union. General Watie’s orders to his troops forbade them to take any black prisoners. They were to be killed upon capture. He drove Yoholo’s pathetic mass into Kansas, with scant supplies in the dead of winter, and left them there to die of the cold and starvation.

In the end, the surviving slaves were those that, out of loyalty, wouldn’t leave their Native plantations, and others that were afraid to leave knowing they would be killed as runaways. Some of the remaining slaves fought beside their Cherokee masters for the South. These were the Black people that were forced upon the Cherokee by treaty to take into their tribal membership rolls at the end of the Civil War.

This is my reading of that tragic era in Civil War history, which included several books on the subject. Thus, to me, the actions taken by the Cherokee Tribe and its Supreme Court to disenfranchise those Freedmen, and the way it was done with apparent political motives, reek of injustice, if not racism. And using tribal sovereignty as the reason—or excuse—cheapens it further. The exercise of its sovereignty also means that the Cherokee Nation could tell those black citizens that they are welcome to stay and enjoy the heritage that was forced onto them, however tenuous. Sovereignty is powerful stuff, but it must have humanity; it must have soul.

There is light, however, in this messy swamp that taints Indian America. Cherokee attorney Ralph Keen, Jr., who courageously represents the Freedmen in their cause, is to be commended for his defense of this embattled minority among minorities. He sets a standard for which the entire Cherokee Nation, and all Indian Country and beyond, must admire and celebrate. I knew his father, the late Ralph Keen, who must from beyond be proud of his son.

Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. His website is IktomisWeb.com.

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detangers's picture
I was wondering if someone could explain to me this. It is said that you can not be a Cherokee citizen unless by blood,, ok then, for those who know better than me, the question come to my mind is why are non-natives who a married to natives citizens?They are married but they DO NOT
detangers's picture
SORRY about miss hap, Anyways, why are non natives considered citizen? I see where the children would be because of the blood line but uh.. the spouse? We again are talking blood line, not marriage line. uh. strange to me.
ayajinta's picture
under the "new model" it might not make sense, but many tribes (back in the day when we had real sovereignty and not just whatever "sovereignty" the federal government "allows" us)would consider people who married into the tribe to be members. Keep in mind - back then membership wasn't about money, it was about family. These days we are caught up in this vicious cycle of internalized oppression - our opportunities (and our sovereignty) are limited by the US gov. We therefore have limited (and often insufficient) resources. So what do we do? We kick people out of our tribes so that we get a bigger cut. We go around telling other people they aren't Indian enough (usually because we at some point have been told that and we need to reassert our identity by becoming the person that passes that judgment) and what gets lost is what's important - real community, real self-determination, real interconnectedness. We need each other now more than ever, yet we are acting like dogs fighting over the scraps our "masters" throw down to us. Instead we should be looking at how to reestablish ourselves so that we can become self-sufficient, and not just through casinos either. Then the issue of indian identity will start being about family and tradition again (inclusive), not about money(exclusive).
siouxsac1's picture
What right do you have telling another Nation who their membership should be? Should the Cherokee decide who should be enrolled at Pine Ridge? Maybe you would not meet their approval and be cut from the rolls. Sanata Clara Pueblo decided this question for good: The Tribe and Tribe alone determines its memebrship.
estelusti's picture
I fing your article encouraging but problematic. You rightly note the issue of freedmen descendants in the Cherokee Nation has become a "moral" issue but in the same breath you make the proclamation their ancestors were "forced" on the nation. Following that line of thinking, one might conclude the descendants of those men and women held in bondage are now being "forced" on the nation? My problem with this thinking is the fact that no one "forced" one slave on a Cherokee citizen in their ancestral homelands or when they were removed to Indian Territory. I seriously don't think the "slaves" forced themselves into bondage and "forced" themselves to learn the language and culture of their oppressor? The fact that the Five Slave Holding Tribes ALL willingly embraced the institution of chattel slavery and subsequently negotiated treaties as a result of their severing treaties that were in place prior to the "War of the Rebellion" meant there were consequences to pay for their actions. As is seen in the skillfully negotiated treaty with the Choctaws and Chickasaws which gave them the "option" of adopting their former slaves and descendants as citizens the implication the African and African-Native descendant people who were enslaved by all rights, culture and acclimation had known no place else but Indian Territory as their home. To say they were forced on the tribe after being enslaved is to suggest these people, the enslaved should have just packed up their rags and forced themselves on the United States since their former enslavers had no more use for them? I have always been amazed the former slaves of the Five Slave Holding Tribes chose to remain in Indian Territory and the only conclusion I come up with is they had developed homes and relationships in the territory as a result of their enslavement and chose to remain. Think about the two land runs when Oklahoma Territory was opened for settlement, they could have left then and possibly obtained more land as a result but they chose to stay in a hostile environment; but forced? Mr. Trimble, I don't have much to quibble about your article I think you have pretty much identified the problem but I'm just a bit bewildered by the symbolism of enslaved people being forced on the enslaver.
duwaynesmith's picture
Chuck has pulled out the moral compass. Certainly the Cherokee Nation needed a better direction on this issue, since it may well be that they are headed into uncharted territory. Just like Columbus, they may end up in another place, not their planned destination. I note that the Cherokee Nation has disenfranchised some 2,800+ Freedmen. However, the membership of the Nation continues to grow. I understand that the Cherokee enrollment office receives about 1,500 membership applications a month. I don't know how many of this number actually achieve membership, but it must be an appreciable number. Eva Marie Garroutte, in her book Real Indians, quotes R. Lee Fleming who was an enrollment registrar for the Cherokee Tribe: " I remember the day when the fourteen year-old girl came in with her parents. She was descended from one of those people who was 1/256 (on the Dawes Roll in 1907). Her blood degree was 1/2048 Cherokee. And I enrolled her." I find some irony here. While the Cherokee Nation wants to rid itself of approximately 3,000 citizens who may have a more historical connection to the Cherokee community, it is willing to accept new members from California and New York, or anywhere else for that matter, and at a good pace. As an outsider, I first looked at this decision of the Cherokee Nation as one of sovereignty. But a closer look makes you wonder. I now believe that this decision is first and foremost a failure of leadership. Who was asking those important questions about what is really in the best interest of the Cherokee Nation, questions about pettiness and political expediency . . . making a decision about what is right as opposed to the lingering attitudes of the 19th century, attitudes that many of us have been trying to move away from for the past 30 or 40 years. This decision by the Cherokee Nation is going to have a very corrosive effect on part of the larger American public who may well view it as racist. I don't believe this is the destination the Cherokee had charted for themselves. But, without a moral compass, it is the only destination.
vincentdenny's picture
Upon reading most of the material surrounding the disenrollment of black freedman,from the Cherokee Tribe,it only raises more questions to this reader.Black people wanting to be Indian?The Congressional Black Caucus,is making efforts to withhold any funding,for the Cherokee Tribe,unless they(Cherokees)relent on their action(disenrollment)..Black people forcing Indian Tribes to keep them Indian?..what "benefits" from the Government are they losing,by disenrollment,that's not provided by Medicare,and the Welfare System?Progeny from the union of Freedman/Cherokee,will meet the blood quantum(1/4)for enrollment anyway.And the Cherokee and other "members of the five civilized tribes",were terminated as indians and no longer recognized by the u.s. government.If they want to be recognized as a seperate group,called"Freedman",and recognized as Indian,what will their policy and laws governing enrollment be?you have to be black?now that's racism.The author skips over a lot of things to make his point,by the way one only has to visit his homeland (Pine Ridge)to see the poverty and squalor,and realize something is wrong.Noone has come up with a" sob story" to "loosen" the Federal purse strings.Hungry children and inadequate housing are a "good guilt trip",and we won't even get into broken promises and ignored treaties..what the hell does anyone think Cobell v. U.S. was about?
softbreeze's picture
How can the Cherokee people on the one hand expect the Federal Government for compensation and finanical support for their loss of their traditional homelands and then on the other hand commit atrocities towards other human beings of a different race by making them their slaves? This seems a bit hyprocritical, don't you think? When someone does it to you, they're the bad guys, and they need to pay up forever? But when you do it to someone else, you aren't beholden to do likewise? You can't play both the victim and conquistador, because it just doesn't wash.