Still Waiting: Cherokee Freedman Say They’re Not Going Anywhere
With the re-election of Principal Chief Bill John Baker, the controversy of whether the Cherokee Freedmen will maintain their status as citizens within the Cherokee Nation has come back to the fore. Their quest to remain citizens according to the 1866 treaty between the Cherokee Nation and the United States remains stuck in U.S. District Federal Court.
Marilyn Vann, a Cherokee Freedmen and president of the Descendants of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, and plaintiff in the case against the Cherokee Nation, says, “We Freedmen people oppose any leaders that are opposed to our citizenship, or any history that writes us out, or falsely accuses us as being non-Indians, or that we were forced upon the tribe. We are Cherokees.”
Prior to the elections, she says she spent time making sure that those who weren’t registered got registered. According to Vann, the majority of Cherokee Freedmen overwhelmingly voted for Principal Chief Baker.
The Cherokee Freedmen are still awaiting word from the U.S. Federal Court about whether they will maintain their status as citizens of the Cherokee Nation. They are not sitting idly by. Vann says that she and other enrolled Cherokee Freedmen are working with those who are not currently citizens so that they feel a part of the Cherokee Nation. She wants them to feel comfortable with those who she thinks will soon be their fellow tribal members. “We’re trying to keep our people aware of whatever is going on in the tribe,” says Vann, “whether it’s participating in [Cherokee] language classes, learning cultural or history lessons,” or “taking part in the Cherokee Holiday.” She also tells those currently undocumented to attend community meetings and “participate in the tribe as much as [you] can…it doesn’t matter what you look like.”
Vann believes that racism rooted in the Jim Crow era still affects how people treat Cherokees who look visibly Black, but says, “it’s 2015, it’s time to get beyond [racial divisiveness]. It’s not needed.”
ICTMN reached out to the Cherokee Nation for comment on the Freedman’s recent development but got no response.
But Marcos Barbery and Sam Russell, the directors of the documentary film “By Blood”, which explores the history and struggle of the Cherokee Freedmen, did respond. Barbery says their film, premiering on January 29, at the San Diego Black Film Festival, has generated different responses, ranging from “disbelief to anger to relief.” They also highlight another important issue that adds to the complexity of the Cherokee Freedmen story: that people are angry, regardless of their position, because it appears [the U.S. Government] is encroaching on sovereign tribal affairs in spite of their own centuries-old history of breaking treaty obligations.”
Regardless of one’s perspective, the Cherokee Freedmen’s issue is not going away anytime soon. In fact, as numerous scholars have pointed out, the Cherokee Freedmen story sheds light on larger issues including the relationship between blackness and indigeneity, between tribal sovereignty and U.S. settler colonialism, and civil rights and sovereignty. We shouldn’t view these competing issues as separate, however. As anthropologist Circe Sturm contends, “in positioning civil rights as something separate from, or even against, tribal sovereignty, we obscure the fact that in the lived experience of people like the Cherokee Freedmen, both claims exist side by side and actually depend on one another.”
Kyle T. Mays is a Black/Saginaw Anishinaabe transdisciplinary scholar of urban Indigenous history, Afro-Indigenous studies, and Indigenous popular culture. He is completing his PhD in the department of history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He can be followed on Twitter:@mays_kyle.
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