Tuesday, September 5, 2017
A federal court judge ruled last week that the descendants of former slaves of Cherokee Indians have the legal right to membership in the Cherokee Nation. At the time of the Civil War, some Cherokees kept slaves. When the Civil War ended, the Cherokee Nation signed a Treaty with the United States agreeing that "“never here-after shall either slavery or involuntary
servitude exist in their nation” and “all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as all 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, and their descendants, shall have all the rights of native Cherokees . . . .”
Trouble began when the Cherokee Nation changed its criteria for eligibility in 2006. The criteria was amended to recognize blood only. This precluded descendants of freed slaves from claiming membership in the tribe. This change disenfranchised approximately 2800 descendants of freed slaves. In rendering its decision, the court noted: Although it is a grievous axiom of American history that the Cherokee Nation’s narrative is steeped in sorrow as a result of United States governmental policies that marginalized Native American Indians and removed them from their lands, it is, perhaps, lesser known that both nations’ chronicles share the shameful taint of African slavery."
The federal court decision clarifies that the tribe must treat tribal members equally whether that membership comes by blood or freed slave descendency. The tribe has accepted the outcome. Cherokee Nation's Attorney General Tom Hembree said: