How Black 'Freedmen' Votes Will Impact the Cherokee Nation
1 year ago
A long history of racial separation betwen blacks and Cherokees re-surfaces
The vote for a new Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation started Saturday, September 24 and polls will remain open through October 8. This is just the latest in a series of votes between the incumbent Chad Smith and his challenger Bill John Baker over the last few months, which have ended in recounts and legal court challenges. The difference with the current vote that started Saturday is that the Cherokee "freedmen" -- descendants of the Africans who were enslaved by Cherokees, were married into the Cherokee tribe and had families with Cherokee Indians -- were recently reinstated into the Cherokee nation after being expelled for supposedly not having Indian blood. [For more read our interview with Dr. Tiya Miles, MacArthur "genius" fellow who has researched Cherokee/African-American relations.] The close to 3,000 members of the freedmen minority will be eligible to vote in this election, which could certifiably impact whether the incumbent Smith -- who's long opposed freedmen membership into the Cherokee Nation -- is re-elected, or his opponent Baker, who's also opposed albeit less vocally, becomes the next chief.
Who Are the Freedmen?
Unfortunately most African-Americans' knowledge of their relationship to American Indians in the old West comes from paintings of Buffalo Soldiers at black art shows, Mario Van Peeble’s movie "Posse," or worst, that cousin who insists her straight hair is because she has “Indians” on her side of the family. The reality is that the relationships between African slaves, freed blacks and American Indians are about as complex as modern-day race relations on a New York subway train. Some Native Indian nations, like the Seminoles, readily adopted runaway slaves and fought on the side of the North during the Civil War. Other nations like the Cherokee were pressured by the federal government to assimilate with American whites in the South, intermarrying with them and engaging in the slave trade.
The Cherokees were never fully welcomed into American society and over 15,000 Cherokees and their African slaves were forcibly moved from Georgia to Oklahoma in what was called the Trail of Tears in 1838 because white Southerners wanted their land for gold and the federal government wanted it for railroads.
During the Civil War, the Cherokees who lived in the Deep South were pressured by the Confederate government to fight with the Rebels. They eventually switched sides, joining the Union Army. After the Civil War, the Cherokee Nation was a cosmopolitan mix of intermarried whites, full-blooded Cherokees, former African slaves and many of mixed ethnicity. Treaties with the U.S. federal government eventually sorted out and divided Cherokees while defining who was Cherokee and who wasn't -- lines drawn even today.