History of the Cherokee Freedmen

By: John Cornsilk

The Cherokee Freedmen Story as an article was submitted by email to American Chronicle as a response to an article on the issue, but it was never published so today I resubmit it via the process.

The Cherokee Freedmen are the descendants of African slaves who played an integral role in the Cherokee Culture during the 1700's and1800's. Many of the Cherokee Freedmen Descendants of today are Cherokee by blood, many with actually more than the Thin bloods White Cherokee that are trying to eliminate them from the Membership of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (CNO).

However, the Freedmen were listed on the Dawes Commission Rolls during the enumeration of the Cherokee Nation by the Dawes Commission by an Act of Congress in 1893 and ending and the final Roll Closed by the U.S. Congress in 1906, in a Section called the Freedmen Roll that did not classify them as Cherokee by Blood, BUT, simply because their features displayed characheristics of African traits, i.e. black skin and nappy hair...it must be noted they were NOT classed any less Cherokee than any of the other entinicities or classes of Cherokee on the other sections of the Rolls, which has led to modern controversies, or it should be said the outright lie and fabrication of misinformation by Chad Smith and cohorts, as to whether or not the Freedmen can claim they are Cherokee.

However, near the end of the civil war in 1863 the National council of the Cherokee knew what loosing the war on the side of the southern States would mean, and many of the slaves were actually Cherokee family members, and to protect them as family, the Cherokee Nation freed their slaves by an emancipation act and under the reconstruction Treaty of 1866 and by amendment to the 1839 Constitution in the same year of 1866 See "Article III, Section 5", made them Citizen of the Nation by these two acts of law, irregardless of blood. And the Cherokee Freedmen were classified by the United States as Indians, and lived along side their bretheren as Cherokee through the good an bad times into the the early years of Oklahoma Statehood...In 1880 the Cherokee decided there needed to be an enumeration of the people to show who was a Citizen, and how they were classified, a fact that Chad Smith attempts to negate with lies an mis-information, the black Cherokee at the time of this census that were blood family members were simply listed as Cherokee, and the Black freed slaves that the 1866 Treaty had made citizens were classed as ADOPTED NEGRO or COLORED, absolutely none the less Cherokee, than the other adopted Tribal members and White People.

Slavery was nothing new to the Cherokee people in earlier times pre euro contact in their history they did did enslave prisoners of war of the enemy. And did in these earlier times regard prisoners of war as commodities to be traded for other goods.The rapid development of dependence by the Cherokee Culture on foreign manufactured goods made slaves very desirable possessions in early Cherokee History upon contact with Europeans and adoption of European Social customs. As a result, intertribal warfare and enslavement came to be viewed in an entirely different way from the traditional culture when Cherokee Society in the Eastern United States began to fully adopt the cultural European attitudes and started owning farms, and slaves became free labor. The Cherokee began to acquire African slaves for their fields. A new Cherokee aristocracy composed of wealthy farmers developed in the Cherokee Nation as a result of the Slave Trading White Settlers. 1% of traditional Cherokee families owned slaves; 10.8 % of the mixed families and 30.4% of the non-full-blood families did (McLoughlin and Conser 1977:691, 695)

At the end of American Revolution, George Washington encouraged the Cherokees to grow cotton and flax to relieve the economical crisis. His agents sent them looms, spinning wheels, plows and other implements. He appointed Benjamin Hawkins as supervisor of this project, and Hawkins set an example establishing a plantation complete with black slaves on the Flint River.

Laws controlling the activities of slaves actually preceded the Cherokee Nation Constitution of 1827 where black were excluded from participation in the government .

The Cherokee were becoming more and more like the Europeans an act was passed by the National Committee and Council in 1820 prohibited the purchasing of goods from slaves. The law proscribed masters from allowing their slaves to buy or sell liquor, as well as the marriage of whites and Indians to slaves and the freeing of slaves for the sole purpose of marriage and the possession of property by slaves. The legislature did not see fit, however to extend the law to cover marriage with free blacks.

The census of 1835 confirms that a small group in the Cherokee Nation admitted having African ancestry. According to Mcloughlin and Conser (1977:685); National Archives of the United States, "1960 Record Group 75, T496" the Record shows 16,542 Cherokee of which 72% were full blood leaving 4,632 mixed bloods of which 1.575 were intermarried white, There were 1,592 slaves of which .5% were part Cherokee.Some voices were raised against slavery.The Indian advocate newspapers addressed the question of international slave trade and came out in solid opposition to its continuation.

The Cherokee enforced the slave code in two ways: first, laws offered incentives to the prosecutor to seek out offenders and bring them to justice by providing that one-half the fines collected accrued to that official, and second, corporal punishment administered by patrollers of the settlement. The slave code was not the same that the whites had: there were no laws dealing with insubordination and rebellion and the majority of punishments were reserved for masters, not slaves (laws penalized the person who bought goods from slaves or allow them to buy or sell liquor ). White or Indian women cohabitating with a slave were punished suffering fourteen fewer lashes by whip to the back than males committing the same.

Because traditional Cherokee culture acted as a leveling agent, Cherokee planters avoided much of the rigidity and cruelty displayed by the white slaveholding society, but revolts happened, like the one in the Vann family lands in 1842 ( Joseph Vann was the largest Cherokee slaveholder, with 110 slaves in 1835 ). James Vann was good and generous when sober, but his frequent and immoderate consumption of alcohol aroused great cruelty. Vann's slaves reacted to the abuse he gave them in kind.

Cherokee planters allowed their slaves to establish the African Benevolent Society, affiliated with the American Colonization Society. The slaves anticipated "making out enough to carry one emigrant to Liberia" but never realized their goal. These organizations gave slaves in the Cherokee Nation an opportunity for an organized social existence apart from the plantation. The Moravian's located their mission close to the home of James Vann, who offered them assistance in building an school. The missionaries held their first service for slaves on Vann's plantation After the Treaty of 1866 most freed blacks remained in Indian Territory, and most remained in the nation in which they had lived as slaves. In the decades that followed, the freedmen established lives for themselves and made economic gains for themselves faster than the freedmen in the United States. Although some of the freedmen may have had difficulties as former Union soldiers, still very few left the nations. The Creek freedmen were among the first to establish schools for blacks.

The so called "Red-Black Cherokees" represent a truly unique Cherokee population, they are the descendants of former slaves of the Cherokees, the freedmen. Other Red-Blacks were the result of mixtures of Cherokees with black and often white ancestry ( tricolor ). This later group is a small segment of the Cherokee population, but unique and important. They have often been forgotten and discriminated against by Cherokees and non-Cherokees alike. Their "indianness" has typically not been accepted to the same degree as that of Indians with white ancestry, even though they might have more Indian Blood.

March 8, 2006, the Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Chad Smith Click Here for the name of (CNO) announced that the Cherokee Freedmen, the descendents of African Americans who were Citizens of the Cherokee Nation and who were adopted into the tribe after the Civil War, by the National Council of the Cherokee Nation in 1866, and are eligible for membership in the CNO as Cherokee Citizens, are NOT Cherokee as the Constitution requires, because they were classified by the Federal Government as Indians by Treaty in 1866. and the Cherokee people have the right kick them out, see Smiths letter next day following a Cherokee Supreme court ruling the Freedmen are Cherokee, by fact of law.

The Cherokee People did not view a person's race as relevant regarding adoption into Cherokee Clan, and historically viewed the Cherokee People as a political rather than racially based Nation. The Cherokee Freedmen, due to intermarriage with the Cherokee People many are of Cherokee Blood and ancestry in spite of what Smith and cohorts say as a matter of historical record and law. There are many exceptionally talented Cherokee of Freedmen descent who currently reside within the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, as Doctor, Lawyers, everything in between, as contributors to the Cherokee people and nation citizens. The Cherokee Freedmen suffered many of the same hardships as other Indian groups because of their Cherokee Citizenship at the turn of the century and were viewed by the Federal Government as Indians, which led to the freedmen being placed on the Dawes Commission Rolls as Cherokee Citizens during the early 1900's with out blood degree listing and this is what Smith and cohorts try to use against them.

Many thin blood racist Cherokee of the Jim Crow era have always opposed CNO tribal membership of the Freedmen, however, they were by fact of law, the Cherokee Nation granted membership to Indians of Delaware and Shawnee blood based upon previous treaties and agreements with the United States. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Supreme Court recognized the unique role of the Freedmen in Cherokee history and the mutual hardships and common experience with the Cherokee People during pre-Oklahoma Statehood in rendering and upheld the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Constitution guaranteeing equal rights for all Cherokee People regardless of blood, by striking down as unconstitutional the 1992 legislative act that stripped the Freedmen of their Citizenship rights as Cherokee Citizens by ascendancy just like the rest us we Cherokee.

Currently, The CNO Constitution restricts who may or may not serve as an elected official only to those persons who are of Cherokee Blood. Cherokee traditionalists share the views of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Supreme Court that the Freedman descendants did contributed to, and were part of the Cherokee culture and society in modern times, right up to the time they were disenfranchised by Swimmer in 1983 with a racist set of rules, banned from the CNO, the traditionalist Cherokee do not oppose restoring the Freedmen membership in the CNO.

As Stated above the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Supreme court negated the swimmer Rules, by the declaration that the law passed by the legislature of the Chief Mankiller era attempting to legalize the swimmer rules was unconstitutional. This legislative act was the means by which the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma held the Cherokee Freedmen descendants at bay for years.

Principal Chief Chad Smith was criticized by the Freedmen and a large number of Cherokee Citizens, the News Media and others for supporting a constitutional ammendment regarding the Freedmen membership in the CNO and lobbying for the matter to be placed before the Cherokee People. Chad Smith was quoted as referring to the Cherokee Supreme Court as "just three people" deciding the issue of the Freedmen and suggested a referendum considering a constitutional amendment restricting tribal membership to Cherokee's by blood and putting the matter before the Cherokee People at the general election back in June of 2007 for a vote, as amendments to the Cherokee Constitution, after a special election failed to pass the Council.

Oklahoma's Black Indians and their hundreds of thousands of descendents are among those who have left a legacy of records, from the Dawes rolls to the earlier records created after the Treaty of 1866 was signed. In addition, until the middle of the 20th century, there were Black Indians - Freedmen who still lived and practiced the customs of the nations where they had been born. The WPA Slave Narratives contained more than 25 interviews of Black Indians, who spoke of their lives as Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws. Their language, burial customs, and diet were formulated by the native culture into which they had been born, lived and eventually died. Those seeking more knowledge about the customs practiced by these Black Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes will not find lives centered around pow wows, and Hollywood images of the plains nations. These documented citizens of the Five nations were bilingual, bicultural people, seeking to establish new lives for themselves in their new country and their new state of Oklahoma. Most of the Freedmen of Indian Territory who were adults when freed, were bilingual, speaking both English and the language of their Indian slave owners. In some cases some of the Indian Territory slaves, learned English after slavery ended, when meeting members of their families from whom they had been sold. Many of the Black Indians moved easily from English to their Indian mother tongue, while others had their native Indian language as their language of choice. There were others who preferred English though still understanding their Indian language. Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Member!

A March 2008 article in Tulsa World, hard copy and website, briefly reports on this long-standing controversy:

"U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., the most vocal congressional critic of the Cherokee Nation and its efforts to deny citizenship to descendants of former slaves, said both the tribe and the BIA need more oversight on the issue."

The Act of stripping the Cherokee Freedmen descendants of their citizenship was done by Chief Ross O. Swimmer, and done without hint of law as basis; Swimmer and his appointed registrar put together a set of bogus rules in 1983 that began the dastardly deed!

An interesting side note, the registrar at the time, Dora Mae Watie, was of Freedmen descent. Her grandfather was on the roll as a Freedmen, but she denied the fact and strongly supported Swimmer´s plan to kick them out. The Jim Crow era wasn't that long gone in 1983, which the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) had adopted along with Oklahoma. Following are some words that makes for a clearer picture of the fraud by CNO and what they do to this a class of Cherokee Citizens.

In 1988 Wilma Mankiller realized this heinous act being perpetrated upon this class of Cherokee People was totally without basis in law, so she had her Council pass a resolution to strengthen it. In 1992, she finally realized a resolution is not actual law, so she had her council pass a legislative Act, which is an actual law that made the set of rules, and the bogus Resolution, into Cherokee law.

As a result of this legislative Act, for nine years the Freedmen were denied citizenship rights until 2006 when the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court issued a ruling that found the 1992 Act unconstitutional, striking it down.

I believe this letter, posted without attribution, to be a very accurate account of the continued fraud upon the Cherokee Freedmen descendants, by CNO leadership up to and including Chief Smith. All that has been sent and received since demonstrates the most important part of the whole mess: Chad Smith will abide by the 1866 treaty.

On August 11, 2003, descendants of Cherokee Freedmen, through the Velie and Velie law firm, filed suit against the US Dept. of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), alleging loss of voting rights in Cherokee elections, and that the elections, as run, are illegal and should not be countenanced by the BIA. After the initial complaint was filed, various stays have been granted by Judge Kennedy for the parties to attempt a resolution.

During this time period, Cherokee nation tribal spokesman, Mike Miller told the Fort Smith Times, "Freedmen had never voted for officials of the Cherokee nation." This is an untrue statement as such men as Freedmen Councilman Stick Ross today has streets, mountains, etc. named after him and there is even a plaque with his name on the grounds of the CNO complex Tahlequah.

The Muskogee Phoenix newspaper on September 13, 2003 interviewed Principal Chief Smith, an attorney, who reportedly stated that the Cherokee Constitution requires CDIB cards. This was an outright blatant lie; Smith is a lawyer, and was a member of the Constitutional Convention that revised the 1975 Constitution. Article III Section 1 of the 1975 Constitutionand the Revision and Article IV section 1 of the 1999 Constitutionboth say the same thing.

Chief Smith was not pleased with that 2006 Ruling, and laid out his positiondefending the exclusion of Black Freedmen from the Cherokee Nation. This articleappeared on the CNO website, and shows the beginning of his plan to overturn the supreme law of CNO, which Smith referred to as words of just three people - never mind that he had appointed two of them to the court, by bogus claims and a very questionable election process. In a lawsuit that eventually supported the petition process, Justice Leeds offered this dissenting opinion- a must-read to see the blatant disregard for Cherokee law by Chad Smith´s court of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma CNO!!

In September of 2007, Eli Grayson, a Creek Indian of Oklahoma, gave this rousing report in support of the Freedmen at the DC panel of the Black Caucus.

Allies of Cherokee Freedmen are growing, raising hope that this racist exclusion will end.

John Cornsilk

Cherokee, CNO Member!