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Re: Muskogee Phoenix Freedmen Article


Let me start this by saying that your son's art was an inspiration to me. One of his most recent paintings, of the Cherokees who went to England, now hanging in the Casino at Catoosa, made me cry. One of my ancestors is portrayed in that painting.

With that said, let me try to explain why individuals who may be of Cherokee descent cannot enroll at this time.

We must first remember that the Cherokee Nation is a sovereign nation. When Europeans first arrived wars were waged, agreements made (Treaties) and transformed the Cherokee government. Intermarriages took place which produced children who were more like their white families than the Cherokees. In those olden days, decisions were made by the people regarding who could be a Cherokee citizen.

Very early on, prior to 1810, Cherokee women who married white or black men, produced Cherokee children. That is because citizenship in the Nation was tied to clan and clan passed from other to child. It did not matter what the father might be. During this same period, some Cherokee men took white wives. Their children, having no clan, because men cannot pass a clan, were nothing, not citizens, and at that time, not even considered to be people. They were, for all intents and purposes, a people without a nation.

In the 1820, intermarriage among the white race and Cherokees exploded. But these children, clanless and without citizenship, were not the ones who fought for a place in the tribe. It was a Cherokee man named ShoeBoots who had married his black slave and produced several half black/half Cherokee children, who fought for change. By 1827, the Cherokee people, in their efforts to maintain their freedom, adopted a constitution that defined citizenship.

In this new governing document, the people said that the children of all Cherokees by blood, whether men or women, shall be citizens; unless the child is born to a black woman. Those children will have no rights in the Nation.

It was also during this time that the rights of individuals of white ancestry began to take on the mantle of citizenship themselves. Having intermarried with Cherokees by blood, white men and women were taken to be citizens of the Cherokee Nation according to the traditional law of the tribe. They gained the protection of the spouses clan and were granted full rights as citizens.

After the Cherokee Nation was removed to Indian Territory, and adopted a new constitution in 1839, intermarriage slowed, because there just weren't that many whites in the area. Slavery had taken root among the mixed bloods and over 500 slaves were transported west on the Trail of Tears, some of them dying along the way, all of them suffering equally with their masters, and possibly more, because they had to carry everything.

As slavery began to become more and more institutionalized among the Cherokees and laws were passed to govern the movement and treatment of slaves, particularly those who had been emancipated by their Cherokee masters, a problem in the Nation began to arise. There became a significant population of what were known as "free blacks" living in the Nation.

Some of these free blacks even had Cherokee blood ancestry either from their master/father or from a female Cherokee ancestor who had married into the free black community. Following the Treaty of 1846, the issue of free blacks arose in the National Council again and again, as those who hated blacks wanted them removed from the Nation as intruders, while those who saw the injustice of such an act, fought for their rights.

Following the U.S. Civil War, former slaves and free blacks living legally in the Cherokee Nation were taken to be citizens of the Cherokee Nation with the same rights as Native Cherokees. This was a solmen promise guaranteed between the United States and the Cherokee Nation for all eternity, forever.

Keep in mind that the status of the African slave, free black, and now Freedmen, has been one beyond his/her control. They did not volunteer to become slaves, nor did they volunteer to be hated because of their social status or the color of their skin. They had no say whatsoever in the development of the Treaty of 1866. They had very little political clout in the Cherokee Nation and could not exert much influence on the political power structure. And even now, the Freedmen, who have done nothing wrong but to be born into a class of Cherokee citizens who, for all intents and purposes, have remained powerless in the Cherokee Nation, seek only to restore what is rightfully theirs and can be proven to be theirs.

Now, to compare their plight to your own just does not wash. IF your ancestors were even Cherokees, which I do not know, because I have not studied your ancestry, but if they were Cherokees, at what point in the tortured history of the Cherokee people, did someone FORCE them to leave the Cherokee Nation?

We cannot project our own personal situation upon the actions of our ancestors. Every Cherokee, throughout the history of the tribe, has had the personal choice to remain with the tribe, or abandon it. Certainly, there have been Cherokees from times past who have left the tribal domain and the reach and influence of the Cherokee people. They abound. I can name dozens of former Cherokee citizens who simply got tired of the crap and moved off, never to look back or offer any help to their suffering Cherokee brethren.

As the Cherokee government became more and more sophisticated, so too did the requirements for citizenship. Just having some Cherokee blood ancestry was not enough. While it was possible to return to the Cherokee Nation and restore citizenship, it required that the part actually live in the Cherokee Nation. They must come home. Descendants of Cherokees living beyond the reach of the Cherokee people were not considered Cherokees. There is Barbara Hildebrand Longknife, living in Hawaii in the 1890s. And there is John Rollin Ridge living in Sacramento, Calif. in the 1880-1900s, and Henryetta Bean, living down in Kilgore, Texas. All of them applied to the Dawes Commission and were rejected. Not because they could not prove they were of Cherokee blood, but because they could not prove they were eligible for Cherokee citizenship. And today, their descendants, who can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that their ancestors WERE Cherokees, cannot enroll. They do not meet the requirements of citizenship set today by the modern Cherokee people. That requirement is that you MUST have an ancestor on the Dawes Rolls. Before 1900, you had to just prove you had Cherokee blood and that you actually lived in the Cherokee Nation. Today, you must prove you have an ancestor who was a citizen at the turn of the 20th Century. There is no minimum degree of blood and no residency required.

So Patricia, we have apples and oranges here. The Freedmen were made citizens of the Cherokee Nation under our own laws and the laws of the United States. Many of them have Cherokee blood, but were not permitted to record it on Dawes because they were part black. And then we have individuals who might be of Cherokee descent, but who meet none of the requirements established by the Cherokee people themselves for citizenship. Where is the comparison to make a determination of fairness?

And finally, it is my observation that most people who think they have Cherokee ancestry quite simply put, do not. Even if the Cherokee membership criteria were to be relaxed to the point where anyone could enroll who could prove they have some miniscule drop of Cherokee blood from some long distant Cherokee ancestor, the numbers who would be eligible would be small. On the other hand, the numbers of individuals who would still be crying about being left out would be those who cannot prove anything Cherokee in their ancestry.

Citizenship, by its very nature, is a line drawn in the sand. It can move back and forth based on the wishes of the group as a whole. But it cannot be moved by those on the outside looking in; only by those on the inside. If you have Cherokee blood ancestry, and you want the Cherokee people to recognize that by extending citizenship to you, then talk to Cherokee members and see if you can get a petition started to amend the constitution. It takes less than 3,000 signatures on a petition to place a question on the ballot.

I have long said that I would support such an amendment if and only if it also was tied to residency in the Cherokee Nation. So for anyone who says the Freedmen issue is not fair to the socalled "lost" Cherokees, take a real look at what you are saying. Compare apples to apples and lets not muddy the waters on this important issue of morality and justice for Cherokee citizens who have been with us since before the Trail of Tears, have our blood in their veins, and are an important part of our communities. When and if you, Patricia, wish to take the initiative to start helping yourself by working within the framework of the Cherokee political structure, I am willing to offer you whatever assistance and advice I can.

David Cornsilk

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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