Cherokee Nation Seeks Cherokee Freedmen Stories, Photographs

The descendants of former slaves within the tribe have rights within the Cherokee Nation.

Freedmen camped at Fort Gibson before enrollment with the Dawes Commission
A group of Freedmen camped at Fort Gibson before enrollment with the Dawes Commission. Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. was a college student when he first learned about the Cherokee Nation’s history with slavery. Tribal members owned slaves until the Cherokee National Council passed an act freeing them in 1863. Three years later, the Cherokee Nation signed a treaty with the United States that granted formerly enslaved African Americans and their descendants “all the rights of native Cherokees.” 

To ensure the narratives of these Cherokee Freedmen are included in the tribe’s larger history, the Cherokee Nation created the Cherokee Freedmen Project last year. While there is a growing knowledge of the role of slavery within the Cherokee Nation, the goal of the project is to give deeper meaning to the Freedmen experience and make sure there’s an understanding of it, Hoskin says.

“Anytime an institution of slavery is part of your history, I think you have to recognize that history, accept it and then find ways to move forward without doing what some other societies and cultures have done, which is to whitewash it or to ignore it,” he says.

The Cherokee Nation issued a call in November for Cherokee Freedmen descendants to share stories, photographs and other memorabilia documenting their ancestors’ lives. The goal is to have enough of a collection to organize an exhibit at the Cherokee National History Museum later this year. The Feb. 15 submission deadline is being pushed back because the response has been slow.

“I think we need to step up our outreach among Cherokees of Freedmen descent and I think talking about this subject continually helps make Cherokees of Freedmen descent feel more comfortable coming forward, I hope that’s the case,” Hoskin says.

That lack of comfort stems from resistance to accept Cherokee Freedmen and their descendants as tribal members. For a century and a half, much of the Freedman experience was denied by a majority of tribal members and leaders, Hoskin says. Additionally, there were active efforts to strip Cherokee Freedmen descendants of their rights.  

Legal battles over descendants of Cherokee Freedmen’s right to citizenship have been fought in court for decades. The conflict was largely over the requirement to have Indian blood for Cherokee citizenship and the rights that come with that such as access to health care and the right to vote.

The Cherokee Nation had about 8,500 enrolled citizens of Freedmen descent in February 2021 when the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruled the “by blood” language was void and should be removed from the Cherokee Nation’s tribal laws, including provisions within the Constitution. Cherokee law directs that changes to their Constitution be approved by the Department of the Interior, so Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland approved a new Cherokee Nation Constitution in May 2021.

“Denying that somebody was part of the larger Cherokee experience for generations perhaps made being Cherokee not a prominent part of their lives because they were denied their status,” Hoskin says. “And so it may be that we’ve lost a great deal over the generations because of our own suppression of the Freedmen experience.”

The Cherokee Nation itself is no stranger to suppression, Hoskin notes. In 1838, the Cherokee people were forcibly removed by the U.S. government from their tribal lands in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina. Approximately 4,000 Cherokees died on the way to Oklahoma, along the Trail of Tears. Over the years, the Cherokee people have “suffered mightily” and still do today in terms of their own history being whitewashed, denied and marginalized, Hoskin says. 

The Cherokee people try to fight that by telling their own story, but it’s difficult because the tribe has faced oppression for decades, he says. However, that experience is also helpful in relating to the Cherokee Freedmen and their descendants, and understanding their experience.

“We have to be honest with ourselves that if we’ve done the same to people within our own Cherokee society, we’ll get the same results,” Hoskin says. “But I think the good news is that most Cherokee leaders today embrace what I’ve talked about here in this conversation, which is that we ought to celebrate the Freedmen experience, we ought to make sure that equality is something more than just what’s written on paper, that’s it’s something we embrace every day.”

Cherokee culture has a rich oral tradition, so Hoskin hopes the Cherokee Freedmen Project will focus on gathering oral histories during this extended collection period. Officials would like to get as many submissions as possible by Mar. 4. All submitted materials can be shared for documentation purposes, temporarily loaned or permanently donated.

Those interested in participating in the Cherokee Freedmen Project or providing historical materials can call (918) 456-6007 or email info@visitcherokeenation.com.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.