In a move with significant legal and social implications, the current leadership of the Cherokee Nation has stated that it will banish 2,800 African Americans from its citizenship rolls. BIA Assistant Secretary Larry Echo Hawk has warned that the results of the September 24 Cherokee election for Principal Chief will not be recognized by the U.S. government if the ousted members, known historically as "Cherokee Freedmen," are not allowed to vote.
"The Cherokee Nation will not be governed by the BIA," Joe Crittenden, the Nation's acting Principal Chief, said in a statement responding to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The dispute stems from historical events that pre-date the Civil War. Certain native Cherokee owned slaves who worked on their plantations in the Southeast US, where the Cherokee Nation’s original ancestral homelands were located. By the 1830s, most of the Nation was forced to relocate to present-day Oklahoma via the infamous Trail of Tears, and some members brought their slaves with them. The current-day “Cherokee Freedmen” are descendants of those slaves.
Following the Civil War, a treaty was signed in 1866 guaranteeing tribal citizenship for the freed slaves. The U.S. government asserts that the 1866 treaty with the Cherokee Nation guaranteed that the slaves were tribal citizens, whether or not they had a native Cherokee blood relation.
The African American members of the Cherokee Nation lost their tribal citizenship last month when the Cherokee Supreme Court voted to support the right of tribal members to change the Nation's constitution on citizenship matters. The change meant that Cherokee Freedmen who could not demonstrate a native Cherokee blood relation were no longer citizens, making them ineligible to vote in tribal elections or receive benefits.
In addition to pressure from the BIA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is withholding a $33 million disbursement to the Nation while the dispute remains unresolved. A federal lawsuit has been filed in Washington DC seeking to restore voting rights for the Cherokee Freedmen in time for the September 24 election for the Nation’s Principal Chief.