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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 had argued that only those with Cherokee blood should be citizens and a legal ruling otherwise would be an affront to its sovereignty. But now, the Cherokee Nation has begun reviewing applications for citizenship from the estimated 3,000 living descendants of Cherokee Freedmen like journalist Kenneth J. Cooper, who says his enslaved ancestors walked the Trail of TearsAttorney General Todd Hembree explains why, after the tribe’s decades-long fight against citizenship, he is accepting the court’s decision: 

Everyone wants to do the right thing for the right reasons. That is easy to understand but often difficult to carry out. Late last month, a federal judge ruled that descendants of slaves emancipated by the Cherokee Nation were entitled to citizenship in the tribe. The ruling was based on an interpretation of the Treaty of 1866 between the United States and the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Nation, the federal government and freedmen descendants have long been at odds over the meaning of the treaty’s provisions. The court decided that freedmen descendants are entitled to Cherokee Nation citizenship to the same degree as native Cherokees. As the attorney general for the Cherokee Nation, I will not appeal this decision. It is the right thing to do.

The Cherokee Nation’s story is one of both hardship and resilience. Cherokees once governed most of the southeastern United States. Over time, through conflict and broken treaties, those lands dwindled until finally the Cherokees were removed altogether and forced to march halfway across the United States to what is now Oklahoma. On this Trail of Tears, Cherokees took what possessions and property they could cart or carry to their new homes nearly a thousand miles away. By most estimates, fewer than 10 percent of Cherokees owned slaves. However, there is no denying that slaves owned by some Cherokees were included with this “property.” Through contact and interaction with colonial settlers to the United States, the Cherokees adopted some of the best attributes of this new country — but also some of its worst.

Slavery is a scar on the rich history of both nations. The history of the Cherokee Nation during the Civil War is complex, with different factions within the Cherokee Nation aligning themselves with both sides at different points in the war. Citizens of the Cherokee Nation were divided for different reasons than citizens of the United States were, with many Cherokees using the Civil War as an opportunity to settle old scores between members of the tribe. But the institution of slavery, alive and well among several wealthy and influential Cherokees, was undoubtedly a key part of the dispute.

When the conflict ended, the United States and the Cherokee Nation reaffirmed their bonds to one another by the signing of the Treaty of 1866. In this treaty, Cherokee Freedmen and their descendants were given the rights of native Cherokees.  Slavery and the Civil War had ripped the Cherokee Nation apart in much of the same way it did the United States. We emerged from the conflict with deep divisions that manifested themselves into injustices that would take generation to overcome.

Decades of court battles have been spent interpreting what the treaty meant. Today we have that answer, and we know that it means Freedmen descendants are eligible to become citizens with the same rights and privileges of native Cherokees. Although the United States has often abandoned many of its solemn promises and duties under the treaty, the Cherokee Nation will continue to honor it.

The Cherokee Nation accepts this outcome, but reaching this conclusion was not easy and will not be easy for some to accept. There are some within the Cherokee Nation and Indian country that insist we should continue to fight to protect a right to exclude the Freedmen descendants from citizenship in the Nation, feeling that accepting the federal court’s interpretation of the treaty limits our Nation’s “sovereignty” and inherent right to self-determination.

I, however, can think of no better exercise of Cherokee sovereignty than to accept this decision and to take the Nation beyond this divisive issue. We are 350,000 citizens strong, many of us living and working in Oklahoma where our capital and tribal headquarters are located. Cherokees have shared beliefs, cultural stories and our own Cherokee language that is still spoken by many elders and children today. Including Freedmen descendants in our tribe, many of whom share these cultural traits, doesn’t make us weaker. Inclusion makes us stronger than if we would have continued to prolong this painful division of our people.

Although the court did not rule in favor of the Cherokee Nation, I do not see this as defeat. In today’s political and social climate, we often require winners and losers, no matter how destructive that might be to all parties. In doing so, it is easy to compromise the moral high ground to obtain “victory” while ignoring the human cost of our actions.

The Cherokee Nation needs not to think in these terms, just as political leaders in Washington should not. Rather we should all think in terms of justice, integrity and compassion. We should all strive to do what is right regardless of whether we have been determined to have won or lost.  Sometimes by deciding not to fight, we all win..

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