In Limbo: Descendants of Cherokee Freedmen Seek Recognition

Feb 23, 2016

It’s one of the most controversial issues in Indian country, the issue of the Freedmen.

Cherokee Freedmen were former slaves adopted into the Cherokee tribe after the Trail of Tears. Today, descendants of the Freedmen say they've been denied citizenship and other rights owed to them. A federal judge is expected to rule on this issue sometime this year.

In the first of a series of Invisible Nations reports, Allison Herrera interviews Will Chavez. He's the interim editor of the Cherokee Phoenix and has covered this issue for more than a decade.

Allison Herrera: For those listeners who don’t know anything about the Cherokee Freedmen, give us a history of who they are and what the issue exactly is.

Will Chavez: Most of the Cherokee Freedmen who are in our tribe are descendants of former slaves that Cherokee citizens held back in the 1800’s. After the Civil War, of course all slaves were free.  We’ll call it punishment from the federal government Cherokee nation was told to give rights to the Freedmen. That was part of the 1866 treaty that the federal government negotiated with the tribe.

AH: You said that it was punishment from the federal government, what did you mean by that?

WC: Cherokee Nation, and other tribes in this are the Creek Nation, maybe two or three others, sided with the confederacy. They actually signed an alliance with the confederacy. It was like our chief at the time had to do that for survival. The government sent representatives to Ft. Smith, Arkansas to negotiate with tribes to re-establish relations with tribes and of course the government had stipulations for re-establishing those relationships and one of those was taking in our freedmen. 

AH: For our listeners, I don’t think they know that the Cherokee held slaves.

WC: Well, it is a dark part of our history. Some of our historians said we were just trying to emulate our white neighbors back in Georgia and Tennessee. We thought at that time if we looked like them, lived like them, lived in homes like they did, that they would see us as equals and leave us alone and let us stay and keep our land.

Will Chavez, Interim Executive Editor of the Cherokee Phoenix
Credit Allison Herrera

AH: What drew you to reporting on the issue of the Freedmen?

WC: This was back in 2003 and I didn’t know, really the history of it and I went back and this had been going on for 20 years. This began in 1983 when the Freedmen were first pushed out of the tribe, by the tribal council. So, lawsuits were filed over the years and finally, in 2006 Cherokee Nation Supreme Court heard one of the cases and ruled in favor of the Freedmen.

AH: How many descendants are we talking about?

WC: There’s been estimates of 28,000, approximately. Not all of them registered with the Cherokee Nation when the case was ruled on in 2006. Some did. The ones that did are still part of the tribe. Of course they’re waiting on that federal court case that’s still pending in D.C. Most of the Freedmen are in limbo right now waiting to see what happens.

AH: What do they want?

WC: The most vocal freedmen, and the ones I’ve talked to, met with-I’ve attended many of their meetings. Most of them say they just want the recognition. They want to be able to say they’re Cherokee.

AH: What’s the opinion of this administration right now? Principle Chief Bill John Baker as opposed to his predecessor.

WC: He seems to be more accommodating to the Freedmen. The previous Chief was really anti-Freedmen and actually took part in the process of trying to keep them out. You see them at events now and they’re invited. No one says anything about them getting car tags or being part of the process. So, it seems to be a little bit more accommodating.

AH: What’s next for the Freedmen issue? I know you said there is a case pending.

WC: All of the freemen are waiting on that. The federal judge in district court in D.C. He told everyone he would rule last spring. He said that in May of 2014. That’s what everyone’s waiting on, including the tribe.

AH: Why should non-native people care about this issue?

WC: I think it goes across tribal lines because the Creeks, the Chickasaws, the Seminoles, the Choctaws-they all had their own Freedmen. It may touch on dis-enrollment issues that are going on with some tribes.  And it may touch on all tribe’s history with the federal government. What sovereignty we have and what we don’t have. That’s been a big issue in this thing: how far can we push our sovereignty? How much rights do we actually have? Because in 2011, there was talk of preventing the Freedmen from voting again. The federal government stepped in and said, ‘They vote or your funds are potentially going to go away.' So, how sovereign are we if we have to bow to that threat?

AH: Thank you so much Will Chavez for taking the time to talk to me. I know you are really busy and you’re on a deadline. 

WC: No problem. I’m glad to talk to you.

  • Click here to read a timeline of the Cherokee Freedmen.

This is the first of reports that Invisible Nations will have related to this issue, as the freedmen and the tribe await the federal court decision. You can interact with Invisible Nations and provide your own experiences by texting the word "Press" to 405-759-8336.

Listen to an excerpt of an interview with Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes:

Read articles written by Will Chavez about the history of the Cherokee Freedmen case:

Invisible Nations is brought to you by KOSU and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.