Cherokees flee the moral high ground over Freedmen

by Robert Warrior

Cherokee Chief Chad Smith is wrong and Representative Melvin Watt (D-North Carolina) is right. As those who follow the American Indian political world know, earlier this year an overwhelming majority of Cherokee voters decided to deny descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen, freed slaves who trod the Trail of Tears with their Native American owners, rights to political enfranchisement guaranteed to them in an 1866 treaty the Cherokees signed with the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War.

In June, Chief Smith campaigned on this popular issue and won a new term as elected leader of the largest Native nation within the border of the United States.

Watt is among a group of Congressional Democrats that also includes Maxine Waters and Diane Watson who are responding by calling into question whether or not United States taxpayers ought to be funding Cherokee programs. Most recently, the House Financial Services Committee decided to give the Cherokees a month to clear up the Freedmen issue before voting on Rep. Watt’s amendment to an affordable housing bill that would exclude the Cherokees until they are in compliance with the 1866 treaty. Smith and the Cherokees must respond by the time Congress comes back from its current recess.

Morality, however, has been the missing topic in the wrangling thus far, and I would argue is the basis for why it is important for everyone, especially American Indian people who have been silent thus far, to support efforts like those of Representative Watt.

The politics of this issue are certainly interesting—the embarrassingly low number of Cherokees, for instance, who participate in their nation’s electoral process (less than 8000 in a group of well over 150,000), the predictable way that this decision by one group exposes all American Indian nations to alienating people who have been important, reliable friends (the Congressional Black Caucus most visibly). Morality, however, has been the missing topic in the wrangling thus far, and I would argue is the basis for why it is important for everyone, especially American Indian people who have been silent thus far, to support efforts like those of Representative Watt.

The moral case against the Cherokees is straightforward. As a duly constituted nation in the nineteenth century, they legally embraced and promoted African slavery, a position they maintained after Removal to Indian Territory in the 1830s. The vast majority of Cherokees could not afford slaves, as was also the case throughout the American South, and historians of Cherokee slavery have demonstrated that some aspects of the Cherokee social world gave a different, less negative character to being enslaved by wealthy Cherokees rather than wealthy whites. Make no mistake, though. No one is on record as having volunteered to become a Cherokee slave. History records plenty of Cherokee slaves attempting to escape to freedom, as well as Cherokee slave revolts.

The institution of slavery was for Cherokees, as it has been for all people who practice it, morally and politically corruptive, and many citizens of this Native slaving nation knew it. Stories like that of the children of Shoeboots and Doll, a Cherokee slaveowner and his black concubine/wife, whose father risked his reputation as a war hero in petitioning for their recognition as Cherokees provides a picture of this ambiguity, but the cruelty, sexual violence, and physical degradation of modern slavery under Cherokees like James Vann is just as unambiguous (both are captured magnificently by University of Michigan scholar Tiya Miles in her 2005 book Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom).

The Cherokee Nation officially emancipated all slaves in 1863. The 1866 treaty that subsequently enfranchised these former slaves resulted in an amendment to the Cherokee Constitution that same year. That amendment reads: “All native born Cherokees, all Indians, and whites legally members of the Nation by adoption, and all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months from the 19th day of July, 1866, and their descendants, who reside within the limits of the Cherokee Nation, shall be taken and deemed to be, citizens of the Cherokee Nation.” All of this was as a moral victory for those Cherokees who understood that institutionalizing slavery created moral implications that could only be addressed on moral grounds. That is, formal slaves need not just freedom, but also the protection of citizenship. How else, after all, can those who have lost so much expect to gain their lives without a context in which they can rebuild their lives?

More, though, is going on here, which is the sometimes heart-stopping recognition on the part of leaders of a slave-owning nation that many of those slaves who are so easy to think of as being THEM are in fact US. To be blunt, a history of modern slavery is also a history of rape. To be a slave among the Cherokees was to be sexually available to those who controlled your life. By the 1890s, a legal distinction between the Freedmen and those who were Cherokee “by blood” emerged, but in the moral universe such a distinction was hard to make, and even today the claim of those in the Cherokee majority who say they are primarily interested in maintaining their nation for those who can verify that they have Cherokee lineage rings hollow alongside the murky history of violence that Cherokee slaves and their descendants have inhabited. Such claims fail to rise to the level of those earlier Cherokees who understood that the tragic absurdity of reconciling a nation to its history of slavery requires wisdom and compassion, not insulting and ridiculous appeals to faulty membership requirements and the poses of victimhood.

In spite of being egged on and provoked by the legislated racism of the Cherokee Nation, the vast majority of Freedmen descendants have reacted with impressive dignity befitting their proud history. Melvin Watt and other black members of Congress have likewise responded in a measured, but active way. It remains for more people, including Native American writers, scholars, and artists, not to mention elected leaders, presidents, and chiefs, to stand up and be counted on the right moral side of this question. Better yet, Chad Smith could save us all the trouble by following some of the best examples of Cherokee history rather than the morally corrupting and exclusionary ones he and his supporters have chosen thus far.

Robert Warrior’s most recent book is American Indian Literary Nationalism (co-written with Jace Weaver and Craig Womack). He is Edith Kinney Gaylord Presidential Professor at the University of Oklahoma.