Descendants Of Freedmen Of The Five Civilized Tribes

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For Immediate Release

June 9th, 2004


Delaware Tribe of Indians Supports Cherokee Freedmen Treaty Rights


On May 17, 2004, the Delaware Tribe of Indians unanimously approved a resolution to endorse the Cherokee Freedmen’s efforts to reclaim citizenship rights in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.  The President of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, Ms Marilyn Vann, gave a presentation at the Tribal Council meeting in May during which she explained that the Cherokee Freedmen are currently denied citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.  She concluded by offering her organization’s friendship and support to the Delaware Tribe.  Chief Joe Brooks followed by voicing his disgust at the Cherokee Nation’s racist policy and offered his strong support for the return of citizenship to the Cherokee Freedmen. 


The Delaware and the Cherokee Freedmen are both non-Cherokee groups whose shared history gives each the right to claim Cherokee citizenship.  The Cherokee Nation officially allied with the confederacy during the Civil War.  Following the Union victory, the Cherokee Nation was obliged to sign a treaty of surrender with the United States.  In this 1866 treaty, the Cherokee Nation was forced to discontinue the practice of African slavery and grant full citizenship rights to their former slaves.  It was also agreed to in the 1866 Treaty that the Cherokee Nation would cede a large section of land to the federal government and allow non-Cherokee Indians to settle as citizens in the Cherokee Nation.  The former Cherokee slaves were subsequently given full citizenship rights and identified as the Cherokee Freedmen.  The immigrant Delaware and Shawnee tribes that migrated to the Cherokee Nation following the Civil War retained their tribal institutions while also gaining citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.  From 1867-1907, the Delaware, Shawnee and the Cherokee Freedmen enjoyed full suffrage in Cherokee elections and received per capita payments as tribal members. 


When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the Cherokee Nation was dissolved and it’s land distributed to individual tribal members.  The Delaware, Shawnee and the Cherokee Freedmen received land allotments as citizens of the former Cherokee Nation.  When the Cherokee Nation reorganized in the mid 20th century, the Delaware, Shawnee and Freedmen were included as citizens of the Cherokee Nation.  As the Cherokee Nation’s influence grew in subsequent years, the Cherokee leadership decided to significantly alter their tribal membership policy.  They continued to include the Delaware and Shawnee as Cherokee tribal members but identified both as “Cherokee”.   The Cherokee Nation then excluded the Freedmen from tribal membership on the basis that such individuals were not “Indian”.  This racially motivated policy was codified in the 1976 Cherokee Constitution and since that time many concerned Cherokee Freedmen have fought for the return of their citizenship rights in the Cherokee Nation.  The Delaware Tribe and the Shawnee Tribe were also reluctant to accept their new “Cherokee” status and have subsequently regained their federal recognition separate from the Cherokee Nation. 


The Cherokee Nation has not sat idle while the Delaware and the Cherokee Freedmen challenged Cherokee policy.  The Cherokee Nation appealed the Delaware Tribe’s federal recognition in 1996 and their case is still under litigation.  The Cherokee Nation argues that the Delaware Tribe should not be federally recognized because the Delaware are Cherokee citizens based on the current Cherokee tribal membership policy.  The Cherokee Nation has also not changed their position on excluding the Cherokee Freedmen.  In response, The Descendants of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes filed suit on behalf of the Cherokee Freedmen against the Bureau of Indian Affairs for allowing the Cherokee Nation to disenfranchise tribal members on the basis of race.  The Cherokee Nation contends that the Freedmen are not Cherokee citizens because they are not able to demonstrate any Cherokee ancestry. 


The contradictory position taken by the Cherokee Nation in their tribal membership policy is that they exclude the Freedmen while including the Delaware even though both the Delaware and the Freedmen were granted citizenship in the Cherokee Nation by the Treaty of 1866.  Many believe that Cherokee tribal membership is based on one’s ancestry, but in the Cherokee Nation this is not the case.  While many Freedmen are excluded from Cherokee membership because they lack a Cherokee ancestor, many Delaware are allowed membership in the Cherokee Nation even though they too do not have Cherokee ancestry. 


The reality is that the Cherokee Nation does not base its membership policy on the Treaty of 1866 but on the divisive concept of race.  The Cherokee Nation includes the Delaware because they are “Indian” and excludes the Freedmen because they are “black”.   It is this racially motivated contradiction in the Cherokee Nation’s tribal membership policy that the Delaware-Freedmen alliance hopes to bring attention to and abolish.



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