I had the experience today to attend the oral arguments of the case that may finally decide the issues of Cherokee Freedmen and their status in their nation, the Cherokee Nation. The issue pertained to the Treaty of 1866 where the Cherokee Freedmen, as was stated in Article 9 of the Treaty of 1866, were given all rights as Cherokee citizens, were to retain those rights of citizenship given to Freedmen and their descendants.
Cherokee Freedmen enjoyed rights as citizens and were allowed to vote during most of the 20th century until the 1980s when elder Freedmen came to cast a vote in an election and learned that they were no longer citizens and their rights had been removed by the tribe. This began a series of cases over the years from the Nero Case, to the Riggs Case, to the Vann Case. In turn the tribe has counter-sued the Freedmen claiming a conflict between the tribe having to adhere to Article 9 of the Treaty, and their right to sovereignty and to decide who belongs in the tribe.
The arguments were presented by Diane Hammons for the Cherokee Nation, pointing out that the Treaty was already upheld when Freedmen were given citizenship. They had citizenship, and voted, and therefore the treaty was honored. The concern was that forcing the tribe to continue to admit Freedmen "and their descendants" meant that the tribe had no rights to determine who their members should be. She stated that he conflict between the continued status of Freedmen and the tribe having to uphold this part of the treaty was in conflict with tribal sovereignty.
The arguments on behalf of the Freedmen was presented by Jon Velie were clear and he pointed out that the Treaty itself was made by a party that was at one time an enemy of the United States, having fought with the South in the Civil War. He pointed out that this was not the story of a "few slaves held by a few people." The leaders of this very sophisticated tribe, were principal slave holders, including the last Confederate general to surrender, who was Cherokee slave holder, Stan Watie.
Velie continued to address the southern history and the southern biases toward the former slaves, and he spoke fact after fact about the participation of Freedmen leaders who served on the tribal council in the 19th century, and pointed out that this was not a case of a simply unknown alien people trying to join a tribe. This was an act where the history, heritage and cultural ties of a people who were part of the tribe, were having their role, their history and their identity stripped from them.
The judge asked poignant questions and both parties answered them. Of particular interest was the issue of the future of Freedmen as citizens of the tribe. On side from the tribe, there was the concern expressed that by granting continued citizenship rights to the Freedmen, there was the act of making the "rights" to extend into perpetuity. Velie responded by pointing out the key word "descendants". Nothing is ambiguous about the wording of the Treaty. He also pointed out that the efforts to exclude people, seem to be focused on this one class of people in the tribe.
The significant point of his argument came as he addressed the history and the treatment of Freedmen during the hearings on the Dawes Rolls. In response to the issue of Freedmen and the "inability" to determine blood quantum today was also addressed. He then explained the history of the "politics" of blood. He pointed out that in the cases where a Freedman who was half Cherokee and half black, the policy was simple---"your blood does not matter" and they were thus put on the Freedman roll. And now after over 100 years the effort is made to cast out people based on blood when their blood was never worth being addressed no matter how high it was at the time.
Clearly, history was the most important factor emphasized. There was also the discussion of what was meant when the treaty of 1866 was actually signed.
The presentation by the tribe was that extending rights to the Freedmen under Article 9 did not mean into perpetuity.
And the response was simple, the fact is that there is nothing unclear and nothing ambiguous about the Treaty and about Article 9.
Article 9 of the Treaty of 1866
The hearing lasted for approximately 1 hour, 10 minutes and adjourned at approximately 10:52 am. It is expected that the judge will make a ruling within a short period of time.
Being a witness to this case was significant for me.
In 1998, I was an expert witness as the genealogist and historian for the Bernice Riggs Case. This was held in Cherokee Supreme Court, and took place in Tahlequah Oklahoma. To be a witness to the oral arguments today was part of a major event, for should the Freedmen win this case, this may be the end of a 100+ year saga of determining the status of the former slaves of this former slave holding tribe.
It was interesting to see the persons who were there in attendance, from California, to Oklahoma, to the greater Washington DC region. This issue has gone through several stages, and within the Cherokee Nation, it is hoped that finally a era of Jim Crow sentiments left over from a southern former slave holding community, may finally come to an end. When some bad practices, based on old biases end, the entire community moves ahead to a better future. And when all of the components of the society being allowed to participate everyone makes that same community a better entity.
As the Cherokee attorney Diane Hammond pointed out, the Cherokee Nation is no longer "a geo-political entity with one contiguous geographic community" and it was also pointed out that the Cherokee Nation is the largest Indian tribe in the US. Well, I can only hope that the largest tribe, will emerge stronger and better, when all of the people that make up the tribe are allowed to not simply exist, but to contribute to the nation. When all of the people work together the outcome can only be for the better.
This was a historic day in Cherokee history, but also for the Freedmen of all of the tribes. I, as a Choctaw Freedman descendant find that there is hope for the other nations where the Freedmen are disenfranchised, to also be addressed someday.
But today, was a day in which I was there as an eyewitness to history, and I am proud of what I saw.
I hope that Bernice Riggs, was there in spirit, today, and Rev. Nero, and the Whitmires and the spirits of so many others who had the courage to address the wrongs they saw, and I hope that their spirits were all there today.
And so were the spirits of the Freedmen leaders who once served on the Cherokee tribal council and their names deserved to be mentioned: Joseph Brown, Frank Vann, Ned Irons, Stick Ross, Samuel Stidham, Jerry Alberty. They should never be gotten and their history is a rich one, though seldom mentioned by the tribe, it should be mentioned by all who cherish history and truth, for these were men of Cherokee soil, and life and culture.
The hearing adjourned at approximately 10:52 am. Afterwards a few who were in attendance gathered to have lunch in a nearby cafe, before departing in many directions
Group of Cherokee Freedmen and Attorneys after hearing
Front Row: Cynthia Cook Robertson, Attorney, Jon Velie, Attorney, Marilynn Vann Cherokee Freedman, Dexter Ruffin Cherokee Freedman, (2nd from left back row) Sam Ford, Cherokee Freedman, David Cornsilk Cherokee By Blood, Mark Harrison, Cherokee Freedman.)
(Photo courtesy of Sam Ford)
Ron Graham (Creek Freedman) and Marilyn Vann (Cherokee Freedmen) outside courthouse
Cherokee Freedmen from California at lunch
Journalist Sam Ford, (Cherokee Freedman), Mrs. Ford, and Marilyn Vann (Cherokee Freedman)
Mark Harrison (Cherokee Freedman) & Mark West of No. Carolina
California based Cherokee Freedmen who were also in attendance.