Nearly 150 years after a treaty established a set of rules for citizenship, the descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen are still striving to become a part of the tribe that they say runs in their blood.

Dark, gray skies wash out the October sun in Bartlesville, Okla. Rain trickles then pours as a handful of people file into the Westside Community Center. They gather to listen and to speak up about their identity.

They are the descendants of the Cherokee Nation’s former slaves – they are the Cherokee Freedmen.

But their story holds more history than a single gloomy October day. The ancestors of the Cherokee Freedmen once were slaves owned by the Cherokee. Fast-forward more than a hundred years, and this community now seeks full tribal citizenship within the Cherokee Nation.

For generations, the Freedmen were regarded as citizens of the Cherokee Nation. But in August 2011, the Cherokee Supreme Court recognized citizenship only for those who could prove Cherokee blood relation. For the Freedmen, this meant they were no longer considered citizens. It meant they were ineligible to receive benefits or vote in tribal elections.

Wearing white sneakers and a black dress, umbrella in hand, Marilyn Vann carefully unloads documents for the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes’ monthly meeting.

 014_Depth_Cherokee Freedmen_historical photos_Black family-Creek Nation 1900  Lucinda Davis, Creek Freedwoman in 1937

While the storm lashes the outside of the community center, she addresses a small but vocal party of descendants on the progress of their legal battle against the Supreme Court decision. The Ponca City native established the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in 2002 after receiving a letter of rejection regarding her own Cherokee citizenship.

“I’m the kind of person that doesn’t sit around,” Vann said. “I’m going to do something about it.”
And she did. Vann told her daughter, Rose, that she was angry and wanted to fight for her Cherokee citizenship. After delving into legal research, Vann decided her rejection was a scam and it was time to organize.
As president, Vann travels throughout Oklahoma sharing updates on the fight against tribal disenrollment. She adopted the issue as one of her own and proudly regards herself as a Native daughter despite the letter she received.

“What does a Native American look like?”

“What does just a U.S. citizen look like?”

Edie Woodson, 44, asked these questions after sitting with other descendants at the meeting on this rainy Thursday afternoon. With her black hair smoothed and pinned back, she says she just wants to be included as a citizen in the nation. That’s it.

Though she has the lineage, Woodson doesn’t have the correct birth certificate to secure her descendant rights. Because she was born in California, she doesn’t have the same rights as her mother, Sally, to call herself a Cherokee Freedwoman.

“I feel cheated and slightly disenchanted,” Woodson said. “I don’t like labels being put on me. I have been Native American since Mom and I met 44 years ago.”

Now a resident of Bartlesville, Woodson refuses to give up her voice in the fight. She pointed to racism and fear as the roots of the problem. Woodson agreed with Vann in her belief that the Cherokee Nation disenfranchised the Freedmen because of their black heritage. But embedded deeper than the roots, she said, this fight is about inclusion.

“It’s not about taking any funds from the nation,” she said. “We want to be heard. We want to be seen. I don’t think it’s right that because of our skin color that we are once again deprived. Not in this country at this date.”

After the American Revolution, slavery began to spread across the Southern United States. The Cherokee, meanwhile, were shifting from hunting to agriculture. Mixed-bloods, typically of Native American and white descent, were gaining political power.

Consequently, the number of slaves and their importance in the Cherokee Nation began to grow. Cherokee once used war captives as a warning to outsiders, but they steadily transitioned into using these captives as slaves for economic value. The slave trade also transitioned from capturing Native Americans to selling and trading kidnapped African Americans. Native Americans traded slaves with Englishmen, and the nation began to change.

“People [who were] enslaved in the traditional southern style of slavery, [they] worked Oklahoma plantations just like they worked southern plantations,” said Linda Reese, director of the Oklahoma Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma.

Freedmen camped at Fort Gibson to enroll before the Dawes Commission

Reese spent most of her career researching women of color in the American West and the struggle for racial, economic and gender equality in 20th century America.

By 1835, Reese said, more than 200 Cherokee families owned close to 1,600 slaves who were enslaved in the traditional southern style of slavery. Their duties included rearing children and tending to housework, animals and crops.

“They were required to fulfill all of the roles demanded by their slaveholder,” Reese said.

During the Civil War, life became challenging for soon-to-be Cherokee Freedwomen. Slave men left them as they went to fight alongside Cherokee men in the war, so many slave women who couldn’t read or write were at the mercy of those who assumed authority over them. Their skin color often left them vulnerable to kidnapping by both Cherokee and whites.

“You packed up your household goods and your slaves and you took them and went down south to last out the war,” Reese said. “But at the same time, some of the Native people left their slaves behind to hold down the fort.”

You packed up your household goods and your slaves and you took them and went down south to last out the war,” Reese said. “But at the same time, some of the Native people left their slaves behind to hold down the fort.”

As the war progressed and guerrilla raids continued, many black Cherokee slaves, now without a master, desperately sought safety. Some ran away and hid; others were stolen or captured by whoever found them first.

After the Civil War, a peace treaty attempt between the Cherokee Nation and the U.S. government proved difficult. Finally, in July 1866, a treaty with an important provision for slaves was finalized in Washington.

The treaty provision specifically stated: All free blacks and freedmen within the Cherokee Nation at the beginning of the war, currently living there and those who returned within six months shall have all the rights of Native Cherokee. The treaty also granted full rights of native Cherokee to descendants of the freed people.

But former slave women did not have the same rights as their male counterparts. The treaty embraced the same voting and office-holding rights as the federal government – a government that did not grant voting rights to women until 1920 and to Natives until 1924.

014_Depth_Cherokee Freedmen_historical photos_Seminole School, integrated class


Unbeknownst to some former Cherokee slaves, this treaty provision came with a deadline. Former Cherokee slaves had six months to return to the Cherokee Nation. Otherwise, they would not be covered by the treaty provision.

Principal Chief William Ross amended the Cherokee constitution so that it complied with the treaty agreements.

As a result, citizenship, voting rights and the right to hold office for all former Cherokee slaves would only be granted if they returned to the Cherokee Nation by Jan. 17, 1867.

But for many former slaves and their families, this was an impossible deadline. Many slaves had split up with some members stranded in Texas, Kansas, Mexico, Arkansas and parts of Indian Territory.

Some didn’t make it because they knew nothing of the deadline. Others were destitute and had formed new commitments.

Ex-slaves who wanted tribal membership first had to apply and be deemed eligible by the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes. Later named the Dawes Rolls, the list included those who were accepted for tribal membership in the Five Civilized Tribes: the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole.

Today, the Five Tribes use the Dawes Rolls to determine tribal membership. Applicants must provide proof of descent from a person listed on those rolls. Freed people who arrived after the deadline were considered intruders and subject to removal from the Cherokee Nation.

By 1868, the census showed that only 1,576 of 4,000 Cherokee-owned slaves had been granted citizenship.

“Then they had to find work. They were on their own and they had to find work,” Reese said. “Many returned to their former masters and lived with them, continuing the same role they had under slavery with just subsistence.”

Then they had to find work. They were on their own and they had to find work,” historian Reese said. “Many returned to their former masters and lived with them, continuing the same role they had under slavery with just subsistence.”

Fast-forward 115 years to 1983. At that point, the descendants of the Cherokee slaves were removed from tribal membership rolls and prohibited from voting in Cherokee elections. And so began pitched legal battles involving Freedmen citizenship – legal battles that continue to this day.

As an associate professor at Oklahoma University, Fay Yarbrough teaches courses on 19th century American history. One of her research areas is trying to tell the slaves’ stories from their perspective.

“The roots of this controversy now are precisely about what happened in the 19th century and even before the Civil War,” Yarbrough said.

Meanwhile, even since receiving her rejection letter, Vann has dedicated her time and effort to informing anyone looking to support Freedmen descendants.

“We were Cherokee Indians with African ancestry,” Vann said.

014_Depth_Cherokee Freedmen_historical photos_Negro Freedman-Dawes Comm. Enroll

After lunching with fellow descendants in Bartlesville, Vann recounted an incident from her kindergarten days. A little boy in her class asked her, “What kind of an Indian are you?”

The little boy was certain she wasn’t colored, but Vann didn’t know the meaning of the word “colored.” Confused, she asked her father when she got home.

“We are Cherokee Indians and you also have Chickasaw ancestry,” her father said. “But we have colored blood, too.”
Today, she blames the Freedmen’s current legal issues on racism, lack of empathy and lack of voting power.

“In this society, persons of African descent are socially on the bottom of the ladder, and a lot of that I think is because of this idea that those people were slaves or they’re lower class,” Vann said.

In this society, persons of African descent are socially on the bottom of the ladder, and a lot of that I think is because of this idea that those people were slaves or they’re lower class,” Vann said.

Each citizen of the Cherokee Nation has a blue tribal membership card. Cherokee Freedmen descendants don’t have the Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) issued by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. This government-issued card is based on the blood degree listed on the Dawes Rolls.

Without the CDIB card, Vann and other disenfranchised Freedmen have encountered problems because they aren’t federally recognized as Cherokee citizens.

“It can create problems with persons outside the tribe or even inside the tribe,” Vann said.

Problems like a Freedman rebuffed by Indian Health Services because he didn’t have a CDIB card.

Having a CDIB requires significant proof through documents and ancestry that the applicant is of Native descent. Those with the card are federally recognized as dual citizens in their given Native nation and in the U.S., and they’re eligible for tribal programs that offer health services, scholarships for education and other government benefits.

“I was very disappointed because I have three children in college and I know the Cherokees could have helped out with scholarships, books, health insurance,” Freedmen descendant Woodson said.

“It seemed like they all needed braces at the same time and glasses. It would have really helped us.”
Cherokee citizen Patti Jo King has a slightly different take on the issue.

“It’s an issue of sovereignty,” said King, an instructor at the University of North Dakota’s Indian Studies Department. “It’s also an issue of racism, but not the kind of racism that you would expect me to say.

“The racism is on the part of the U.S. government, who is pitting blacks and Indians against one another. We should not be fighting one another.”

King questioned the Cherokee Freedmen descendants’ blame on Cherokee slave owners as opposed to the nation as a whole.

“This whole thing turns on the idea that Indians are more culpable for slavery than Americans are,” King said.

“It’s time that we put this thing to bed and start working together on the problems that really mean something.”

Patti Jo King has a dream. In her dream, the Cherokee Freedmen and members of the Cherokee Supreme Court sit as a group working together for a solution.

“We should not be against one another. We should be working together to unravel this thing and we should deconstruct it layer by layer.

“We should be turning and pointing the finger at those who are responsible for this mess to begin with.”



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