As It Happens

'It's part of who I am': Slave descendants win equal rights from Cherokee Nation

A United States federal court has reaffirmed an 1866 treaty that bestows equal tribal rights between Cherokee and the descendants of those enslaved by the Cherokee.
Marilyn Vann's father and his sisters were listed on the Dawes rolls as Cherokee Freedmen tribal members. They were all born as members of the Cherokee Nation and did not have United States citizenship at birth. (Marilyn Vann)

Story transcript

Marilyn Vann knows her ancestry. She's a descendant of the Cherokee Freedmen, Africans who were once enslaved by the Cherokee Nation.

And as such, she was entitled to full Cherokee tribal citizenship, thanks to an agreement that goes back to the time of the United States Civil War. In 2005, she got that citizenship. But in 2007, the Cherokee Nation changed their constitution to keep out the Freedmen.

Marilyn Vann took the Cherokee Nation to court to fight the change and last week, the court ruled in her favour. As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Vann about the long-awaited ruling.

Here is part of their conversation.
Demonstrators stand at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City in 2007, during a protest by several Cherokee Freedmen and their supporters. (AP)

Ms. Vann, when you heard the judge rule in your favour, what was your reaction?

Very pleased. I was not surprised because I thought the law, the history, was on our side. I thought that our attorneys, as well as the Department of Justice attorneys, had presented very well in the court before the judge in 2014.

Can you describe for us who are the Cherokee Freedman?

The Cherokee Freedmen are persons of African ancestry whose ancestors were either enslaved by Cherokees prior to the Civil War or they were free blacks, generally mixed black Indian Cherokees, legally living in the tribe. These were the people who had rights to tribal membership, perpetual rights based on the 1866 treaty between the U.S. government and the tribe, and also were listed on the Dawes rolls, made in about 1900, as Freedmen tribal members.

So the Cherokee Nation owned slaves, African slaves, is that right?

Yes. There were five so-called civilized tribes, which grew wealthy and powerful, largely because they enslaved people and this was the basis of the wealth and the economy of those tribes. There were big plantations. So there had been slavery in most Indian tribes but it wasn't based on a colour and a lot of the times, a person who had been enslaved, say a war captive, they were adopted into the tribe. Then they just went on, them and the line after them, as members of the tribe. So this was something entirely different than the history of this tribe. 
Rena Logan, a member of a Cherokee Freedmen family, shows her identification card as a member of the Cherokee tribe at her home in Muskogee, Okla. (Dave Crenshaw/AP)

Now, before we get to this treaty in 1866, we go back to the year before, which is the end of the civil war in the United States. What side did the Cherokee Nation take during the Civil War?

The Cherokee Nation in 1861 signed a treaty with the Confederate states and a large part of that reason was in order to protect the slavery. The Cherokee Nation fought on the side of the south to preserve slavery. The last Confederate general to surrender was Stand Watie who was a Cherokee Indian and a slave owner. Yes, the Indian tribes, or some of them, the slave-owning ones, they did fight on the side of the south — that is true.

So you say that in 1866 this treaty which gave Freedman and their descendents their rights to be Native Cherokee, so what changed? How come you had to go to court to fight this?

What happened is that in time the tribal governments began to be wealthy based on opportunities that the U.S. government allowed. Also, the Freedman people did want to support a particular chief. And so instead of going to the Freedman people, and trying to get their votes, it was just, "Well, we'll just remove them. We'll just block them." You know, that's how we'll solve the problem. The constitution was changed in 2007 — or they tried to change the constitution, I should say. It was a big scam.

And you've been fighting this for the past 10 years.

Yes ma'am, we've been fighting hard.

And you won?

We've won, that's right. 
Marilyn Vann with attorney Jon Velieand and another Cherokee Freedmen tribal member, Kenneth Payton. (Marilyn Vann)

What does that mean for people who are Freedman or descendents of the Cherokee Freedman?

What it means is that we can remain in the tribe. Our children can register in the tribe, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. It means it'll be easier for them to learn their culture and language. It also means that the true history, including the contributions of the Cherokee Freedman, will be preserved. This will assist in opening up more opportunities for our people, many who are well-educated, who can be assets to the tribe. No doubt about it.

What does this mean for your personally?

It means that the rights that our ancestors fought for will not be extinguished — this is what it means to me. The Cherokee Nation, my citizenship in the tribe, it's part of who I am. It's part of who my ancestors were. Just imagine yourself, I know nothing about your ethnic or citizenship background. But if someone got up and was trying to take that away or somehow, through some fraud, did take that away — how would you feel to be denationalized? Well, that's how we feel.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Marilyn Vann.