There’s an ongoing issue in the Cherokee Nation-it involves a group of people known as the Freedmen, descendants of former slaves who would like to be part of the tribe. There are nearly 16 years of conflict between the nation and these would be citizens, plus an open legal case. Allison Herrera profiles two of these Freedmen.
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Rodslen is a fit woman in her early fifties. As she flips through books and shuffles pieces of paper detailing some of her family history, her long, braided black hair falls gently over her shoulders. In a house just outside of Fort Gibson, Rodslen Brown-King proudly displays nearly a dozen Cherokee baskets. She won first prize in the Cherokee National Holiday competition for one intricately woven with brown, black and taupe materials. It’s a skill she recently picked up, but one that she’s eager to show off. It’s part of who she is.
"This is something that God gave me. This idea and creation," she says about her baskets.
"And, I won first prize. I have another one, it's at the Spider Gallery-Cherokee Spider Gallery, and I won judges choice."
Rodslen currently works with youth in the Cherokee nation teaching them life skills like taking care of yourself and others. She’s also trying to raise money to renovate a house near Fort Gibson to hold language classes. And she has plans to help some of the youth build an aquaponics unit and raise and sell natural beef. It’s part of the Cherokee coda, she says, of giving back.
“I’m a Cherokee Freedmen...and I have worked hard to prove myself that we all need each other. We have a lot of knowledge and skills that we need to share with each other and to make us beneficial to each other.”
It took Rodslen about 15 years to find her ancestors on the Dawes Rolls, but she finally became a citizen of the Cherokee Nation in 2006. She was one of the lucky ones. Only 2800 Freedmen descendants got citizenship before the process was closed to new members in 2007. In that year, the Cherokee nation passed an amendment stating that those enrolling in the nation had to be Indian by blood. Rodslen never grew up hearing the term Freedmen.
“I hate the term Freedmen. I say Cherokee citizen, 'cause that's who we are-Cherokee citizens."
Rodslen says current Principal Chief Bill John Baker has been supportive of her work. She feels he does want Freedmen in the tribe. Over the summer, his administration made sure money was available for a youth basketball camp Rodlsen organized. All this shows Rodslen that the community really supports her and Freedmen like her will be able to join the tribe.
“I think he’s divided. But, I know he’s going to come around and he’s gonna agree. Because God has the final say. And it’s about what’s right and not what we feel.”
Another Freedman who has a stake in this case is Raymond Foreman, a stocky man in his 70’s who worked for the Cherokee nation in one of their casinos for ten years. Foreman is one of the 30,000 Cherokee citizens whose application for citizenship is stalled-waiting on a decision from a federal judge. As we sit inside the air conditioned Martin Luther King Jr. Center in downtown Muscogee, Foreman tells me a little bit about his grandfather Jerry Foreman and his great uncle Zack Foreman. They were two successful businessmen who owned cattle and cotton gins all over Sequoyah County. His uncle Zack built a railroad near Redland, Oklahoma, where Raymond grew up.
"I remember one of the old ladies, she was a missionary, she said, 'I was really in love with that Jerry Foreman," Raymond reminisced. "He had the prettiest horses and the pretty boots and he was just a real sweet guy." A lot of people remembered Raymond's family from Redland. They were a big deal in business and they owned a lot of land.
Raymond found out about his Cherokee ancestry and his family’s status as a Freedmen after his father became ill 12 years ago. His father started telling him stories about his grandfather. He and his brother started digging and eventually took the research and paperwork they found down to the registration office in Tahlequah only to be told that they can’t get their citizenship cards because of the pending case-Cherokee Nation vs. Nash.
“It irritates me sometimes," said Raymond as he leaned back in his chair.
"I don’t know why. Because the Cherokee Nation and other people have used my tax money for 70 years and now, you know. All I want to do is be recognized. You agreed to that treaty. I didn’t. They did. I don’t want nothing from them. I’ve made mine.”
He’s even taken his case all the way to Principal Chief Bill John Baker asking him why it's taking so long.
"My friend said, 'Chief, I need to talk to you. You've got a guy here, he's been working for you for 11 years, guarding your property and your money and he's a Freedmen and he's having trouble getting his Indian card. What's the problem?'"
Raymond has young grandchildren, whom he wants to be part of the tribe. He’ll find out whether they can or can’t be when the federal judge rules on the case. All sides are hoping that comes sooner rather than later.
Listen to an interview with Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree.