Feb 13, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Cherokee Nation wants info on Black descendants linked to slavery

A sign marks the capitol of the Cherokee Nation is shown on a brick wall.
A sign marking the Cherokee Nation's capitol in Tahlequah, Okla. Photo: Russell Contreras/Axios

One of the nation's largest Native American tribes is searching for family stories connected to formerly enslaved Black people once owned by tribal members.

The big picture: Cherokee Nation principal chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told Axios it was wrong for Cherokees to once participate in slavery, and the tribe wants to fix history by acknowledging Black descendants.

Details: Cherokee Nation last year launched the Cherokee Freedmen History Project to help elevate the voices of formerly enslaved people, known as Freedmen, and their descendants.

  • Tribal officials are seeking stories, photographs, and memorabilia from families in Oklahoma and California as part of the project to develop a deeper meaning to the Freedmen experience.
  • The goal is to eventually house an exhibit at the Cherokee National History Museum.

Background: Tribes in the American Southeast, including the Cherokee Nation, participated in slavery as they attempted to adopt the norms of white settlers.

  • But President Andrew Jackson eventually expelled the tribes from ancestral lands in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee to present-day Oklahoma.
  • Along the way, about a quarter of the Cherokee population died along the "Trail of Tears." Thousands of enslaved Black people also endured the journey.

The intrigue: The Cherokee Nation and other tribes continued slavery in Oklahoma, even though enslaved people revolted in 1842 and tried to escape through the Underground Railroad to Mexico.

  • The status of Freedmen in the Cherokee Nation has been debated for years among tribal members. The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruled last year that Freedmen have the right to tribal citizenship.

What they're saying: "The act of slavery, which was condoned by a Cherokee law, was wrong and a stain on the Cherokee Nation," said Hoskin, who has long advocated for Freedmen.

  • "As chief, I apologize that we did that, and then we're taking affirmative steps to remedy that."

Marilyn Vann, a Cherokee Freedman descendant and president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, told Axios she's happy the Cherokee Nation is working to atone for slavery.

  • "Some who have been hostile to the freedmen just really show some misunderstand history," Vann said.
  • Vann said Freedmen descendants have oral histories, travel records and photographs that will shed new light about the Freedmen's experience.
  • "They had grandparents who spoke Cherokee. They attended a church where they spoke Cherokee."

Don't forget: The Cherokee Nation has around 8,500 enrolled citizens of Freedmen descent.

Be smart: The tribe's shift comes four years after the Cherokee Nation finally recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an official holiday.

Further reading: Cherokee leader wants Andrew Jackson taken off the $20 bill

Go deeper