Blood, Race and Cherokee Sovereignty

by William Loren Katz on March 3, 2007

As President Bill Clinton and others arrived in Selma, Alabama for the 42nd anniversary of the “bloody Sunday” march that prodded Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Cherokee Nation chose a lower road. Members voted overwhelmingly for an amendment to their constitution that revokes citizenship rights for 2,800 members because their ancestors included people of African descent.

Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, has long fought racism from both government officials and by leaders of indigenous Nations. She points out that Cherokee leaders misled voters by insisting “freedmen don’t have Indian blood”, “the freedmen were forced on the tribe”, “the freedmen do not have a treaty right to citizenship”, “the people have never voted on citizenship provisions in the history of the tribe”, and “the amendment will create an all Indian tribe.” Cherokee voters were also influenced by the racist charge “that the freedmen if not ejected, would use up all of the tribal service monies.”

The design of the amendment, Vann points out, is patently discriminatory. Not only does it violate the 1866 Treaty with the United States, but it removes membership from descendants of enrolled African Cherokees whose documentation of Indian ancestry was affirmed by the Dawes Commission more than a century ago as well as those without documentation of Indian ancestry. On the other hand it accepts Cherokee members with white blood or even people whose ancestors are listed as “adopted whites.”

This development comes at a moment of re-examination of African and Indian alliances that followed 1492. Governor Nicolas de Ovando of Hispaniola arrived in the Americas in 1502 with a Spanish fleet that also carried the first enslaved Africans to the New World. Within a year, Ovando wrote to King Ferdinand that the Africans “fled to the Indians and never could be captured.” To the fury of Europeans, Native Americans, the first people enslaved in the New World, accepted African runaways. Indians saw no reason to face the invasion alone. Indigenous people knew European armies invoked their superior blood, Christian religion, and civilization — Native Americans saw an enemy of their enemy as a friend and ally. Native Americans also were not weighted down by bigotry, and their adoption system admitted anyone who might prove useful.

In colonies beyond the reach of European settlements that dotted the American coastlines, the two peoples of color group brought invaluable skills and understandings. As victims of the triangular trade, Africans brought their unique experience of European intentions, weapons, and diplomacy. Native American villages, facing the invader’s constant encroachments, offered runaways and their families a refuge and a base for operations. In what were called “maroon colonies” two peoples daringly forged the first “rainbow coalition.” So ubiquitous were maroons that a French scholar called them “the gangrene of colonial society.” Seeing these largely peaceful societies as a threat to their hegemony, Europeans repeatedly deployed search and destroy armies.

Repeatedly British colonial officials in what is now the United States required Indian Nations to sign treaties promising the return of Black runaways. (There is no record of any fugitives being returned!) To keep Native American villages from becoming an escape hatch for runaways, British officials from Florida to Canada offered Indians staggering rewards for runaways. And to that same end, white traders introduced the enslavement of Africans to the Five Nations &Mdash; the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles. Once these Nations began to adopt European-style dress, Christianity and African bondage, whites called them “The Five Civilized Tribes.” In Florida the terrain permitted massive guerilla warfare, and African Seminoles played a commanding role in a military resistance that held the U.S. military forces at bay from 1816 to 1858, took 1500 U.S. military lives, at times tied up half of the U.S. Army and cost Congress between twenty and forty million dollars [1830s and 1840s dolllars!]

By the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831, southern planters, frantic that leaks in their labor system could have explosive consequences, joined with whites seeking valuable Indian land, to demand removal of the Five Nations. President Martin Van Buren sent 7,000 U.S. troops to drive 60,000 Indians, including black members, to distant and Oklahoma. As 18,000 Cherokees of both races suffered and upwards of 4,000 perished on this “Trail of Tears,” men and women of every station and color comforted one other.

Even before they reached Oklahoma African bondage dominated the social, political and economic life of the Five Nations, and created the class and racial divisions evident today. A minority of Cherokees with white blood owned slaves, claimed a superior status and rose to leadership. “Pure Indian blood” “Cherokees, the majority, slipped to “inferior” and African Cherokees, slave and free, were relegated to the lowest rung. However in the 1850s Heinrich Mollhausen, a noted German artist, visited the Indian Territory and described a form of bondage unlike any southern plantation:

These slaves receive from the Indian masters more Christian treatment than among the Christian whites. The traveler may seek in vain for any other difference between master and servant than such as nature had made in the physical characteristics of the races; and the Negro is regarded as a companion and helper, to whom thanks and kindness are due when he exerts himself for the welfare of the household.

In 1860 Cherokees in Oklahoma owned 2,511 slaves, and at the outset of the Civil War, Cherokee leaders, pressured by pro-slavery Indian Agents and virtually surrounded by Confederate armies, were pressured to support the Confederacy. However, Creek chief Opothle Yahola, a pacifist seeking neutrality, gallantly mobilized about 10,000 people — Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, half of the Seminole Nation, and others, and led the 7,600 survivors to Union lines in Kansas. By April 1862 young men from this multicultural exodus had joined the Union Army and conducted raids in Missouri to free enslaved people.

During the Civil War Cherokee slaveholders did not wait until passage of the XIII Constitutional Amendment in December 1865, but abolished slavery in 1863.

The defeat of the Confederacy allowed U.S. government officials to scrap previous Indian treaties. The very people who had forced African slavery on Indian Nations now demanded they accept Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom.” The Seminoles, who had long embraced their African members as family and allies rather than slaves, immediately embraced equality. Creeks and Cherokees soon followed. In the first year of peace African Cherokees ran barbershops, blacksmith shops, general stores and restaurants or became ferryboat operators, cotton-gin managers, teachers and postmasters. O.S. Fox, editor of the Cherokee Afro-American was enthusiastic:

The opportunities for our people in that country far surpassed any of the kind possessed by our people in the U.S. … It is nonsense for any Afro-American to emigrate to Africa or anywhere else if he can make a living in the Indian Territory.

In 1879 African Cherokees, petitioning for full equality, based their appeal on a shared history:

The Cherokee nation is our country; there we were born and reared; there are our homes made by the sweat or our brows; there are our wives and children, whom we love as dearly as though we were born with red, instead of black skins. There we intend to live and defend our natural rights, as guaranteed by the treaties and laws of the United States, by every legitimate and lawful means.

How ironic and sad that people of African Cherokee lineage still have to fight for natural rights being denied them by the New World’s first victims of the European invaders’ virulent racism.

And how odd that Cherokees ratified a bigoted Amendment that violates a treaty they signed in 1866. Cherokees and other Native Americans have denounced as “fork-tongued” white officials who did precisely that. Professor Jack D. Forbes, who believes that his Native American ancestors may have included Cherokees, states that no one can ignore parts of a signed treaty they no longer like, and doing so is particularly dangerous for Native Americans. Historically Indians adhere to treaties and obligations even while whites ignored their promises and flagrantly violated treaties.

Professor Forbes further points out that Cherokee common law always granted freedom to the children of captives of all races, and these children then became participating members of the Nation. A sovereign State, he emphasizes, includes all kinds of people in its jurisdiction or else it is little else than a racial family that lives according to its self-articulated notions of superior blood. If a State such as Connecticut or New Jersey decided to expel or nullify the rights of some citizens based on blood purity, skin color, facial type, or ancestry, could it claim sovereignty?

Also to suddenly and summarily exclude people from membership in a Cherokee Nation that their ancestors worked so hard to build and nurture, and for a Nation they once toiled as slaves without compensation, dismisses a history of shared sacrifice, and declares a willingness to abandon and dispossess former relatives, friends and allies. This time “White blood” is not questioned, only “African blood.” But what about next time Cherokees may seek to expel members because of blood?

Why would anyone want to promote notions of “good” or “bad” blood more than half a century after the Nazi death camps exposed the final destination of this kind of warped racial thinking? Why would members of Indigenous Nations argue for blood purity five centuries after ferocious foreign conquerors — claiming the natural superiority of their European blood, civilization and religion — carried out the most devastating genocide the world has ever witnessed?

  • Normandie Kent

    William L. Katz is a hucksters not only is he lying about the Cherokee kicking out African Cherokee by blood members, he’s also trying to put Africans in place were there never was any, he’s trying to rewright the history of the Americas pre contact by saying the Mative American Olmecs were really Africans that also created all the Native Americam mother civilizations. He is a liar who by trying to raise the Affo Americans Self esteem by stealing away the Native Americans identity, culture and heritage, and strip them of their own self esteem. Not only do Native Americans ha e to deal with white people trying to write themselves into the history of the Native Americans, they are also Helping the African Americans to write themselves into that same proud history that belongs to neither race, but soley to the Native Americans. Katz is a sorry excuse for a historian and scholar.

  • kuaji

    Thank you so much for this education. When I read about this decision finally given the go ahead by the federal government, I was shocked and sadden. Thank you for answering all of my questions.

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