About US is a new initiative by The Washington Post to cover issues of identity in the United States. Look for the About US newsletter launching this fall.
A decade after the Cherokee Nation voted overwhelmingly to deny citizenship for descendants of the people it enslaved, a district court judge has invalidated the tribe’s decision. The Cherokee Nation has long argued that only those with Cherokee blood should be citizens — excluding the descendants of its black slaves — and a legal ruling otherwise would be an affront to its sovereignty and self-determination. Journalist Kenneth J. Cooper disagrees and is gathering evidence to show he and his relatives are among the estimated 3,000 living descendants of Cherokee Freedmen and deserve citizenship. (Leaders of the freedmen’s group have said as many as 25,000 descendants could be eligible to apply for citizenship.) Cooper explains why this part of his family’s identity deserves formal recognition:
I’m preparing to order certified copies of birth certificates: seven of my grandmother’s from Oklahoma, seven of my mother’s from Kansas, and 10 from Colorado, where I was born.
I’m getting them to enroll myself, my siblings and our nieces as citizens of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. My birth certificate and my siblings’ identify both our parents, in the language of that bygone era, as “Negro.”
So why are we, African Americans, seeking citizenship in a Native American nation?
Two weeks ago, Thomas F. Hogan, a senior U.S. district court judge in D.C., ruled that descendants of the former slaves of the Cherokee — yes, the Cherokee had black slaves, an unusual bit of American history most people don’t know — were entitled to citizenship in the Cherokee Nation under a treaty signed in 1866.
On my mother’s side, some of our ancestors were enslaved by prosperous Cherokee. Our family’s history with the Cherokee Nation goes back at least 200 years, to the early 1800s, in Georgia and North Carolina. The history of the Cherokee Freedmen and the Cherokee Nation are intertwined, a point Hogan makes in his opinion.
The lawsuit that led to Hogan’s ruling was prompted by a 2007 referendum that kicked the freedmen out of the tribe, a move supported by the great majority of Cherokee who voted. That summer, I confronted then-Chief Chad Smith, who orchestrated the referendum, at a panel discussion on the issue at the Unity: Journalists of Color convention in Chicago. I spoke angrily because of a comment Smith made to The Washington Post: “A lot of Cherokees don’t know who the freedmen are.” I read that as trying to erase slave-holding and my family from the tribe’s history.
Through a decade of genealogical research, I have identified my enslaved ancestors and most of their Cherokee slaveholders. One of those ancestors for sure, and likely two, Thomas Still and Malinda Thompson, separately trekked with the Cherokee on the “Trail of Tears.” Under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Army soldiers forced that tribe and others from the southeast to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, so white settlers could take over their lands.
Still and Thompson were along for that rough trip, which led to the deaths of a quarter of the tribe in 1838 and the brutal winter of 1839. Some black slaves died too, but nobody bothered to keep track of how many.
One provision of the 1866 treaty states those former slaves and free blacks who lived among the tribe, together known as Cherokee Freedmen, as well their descendants, “shall have all the rights of native Cherokee.” During the Civil War, the tribe sided with the Confederacy. Afterward, the federal government insisted that the Cherokee Nation do what the southern states had to do — free their slaves and give them equal rights as citizens, in this case, of the Cherokee Nation.
After the war, during the period of American history known as Reconstruction, our ancestors had the right to occupy tribal land in the Cherokee Nation in northeast Oklahoma, where they farmed and ranched. One, Alonzo Manley, operated a public ferry across a river. The men had the right to vote and one Alonzo did, based on his congressional testimony at a field hearing in 1885. A few freedmen were elected to the Cherokee national legislature.
One right the Cherokee Nation withheld from the freedmen, until a federal court ruled otherwise, was the right to a share of federal payments made to the tribe. Equal rights were not exactly equal. But in the late 1800s, the U.S. Court of Claims ruled the Cherokee Freedmen were entitled to per capita payments, a decision Judge Hogan cited in his opinion. I found in the National Archives in D.C. a record that shows our ancestor Alonzo got paid after that ruling, and paid well, because he had a bunch of kids. That money probably didn’t last long, though. He had to feed and clothe those kids.
At the turn of the 20th century, a federal commission took a census of the Cherokee and the other tribes in Indian Territory. This was the first step to prepare for Oklahoma statehood. The tribes owned all the land in their nations. Their citizens only owned the buildings, fences and other “improvements” they erected on the land they occupied. The federal government wanted to identify tribal citizens so each could be allotted an equal amount of land. This shift to private ownership was a setup so after statehood white speculators and settlers could buy what had been tribal lands. When Oklahoma was established in 1907, the territorial Cherokee Nation was obliterated.
Our great-grandmother Florence Rogers, her first married name, is listed as a Cherokee Freedman on that census, the Dawes Roll. She enrolled in 1901, a few months before she turned 21. Florence was the last of our ancestors born in the Cherokee Nation. Like every enrollee, she received 160 acres, although her allotment comprised several parcels separated by some distance. Her oldest children got land too, but not our grandmother, Oma, who was born “too late” — after statehood.
Except for the homestead, which the family kept until the 1960s or 1970s, that land was sold off pretty quickly. Florence struggled to support her children after her husband died. She didn’t have much choice but to sell off her allotment, piece by piece.
I didn’t know all those details growing up. But from my mother and maternal grandmother, I heard a lot about our ancestors being Cherokee and living in Oklahoma. The word “freedmen” never came up. That’s because we do have blood Cherokee ancestry too, as my research has found in the tribe’s own records. My great-grandmother Florence debated whether to enroll as a blood Cherokee or a freedman, according to the transcript of her interview with the federal Dawes Commission. She decided to identify as a freedman after consulting her brother, our Uncle Will, who was a couple years younger. The rules allowed freedmen to sell their land faster.
I need that chain of birth certificates back to Florence, who raised our mother, to prepare our applications for Cherokee citizenship. The birth certificates speak to why I and my close relatives want our Cherokee citizenship. It is our birthright.
This piece has been updated.
More from About US: