Cherokee Nation/Freedmen Timeline

Assistant Editor – @cp_wchavez
08/10/2006 11:52 AM
1700s - Cherokee people first observe the practice of slavery among their British allies in the early 1700s. A Cherokee delegation in 1730 makes an agreement with the British to return any runaway slaves they capture back to their British owners.

Early 1800s - The Cherokee Nation's National Committee and Council prohibits "free negroes" from residing in the Cherokee Nation without a permit. The western Cherokee in eastern Oklahoma also pass a law prohibiting slaves from owning property.

1824 - CN General Council approves a resolution that called for a fine of $50 "against any person who permitted his slaves to marry whites or Indians and punished the persons attempting such marriage by fifty-nine stripes on the bare back."

1827 - The eastern CN adopts a new constitution that is similar to the U.S. Constitution. "Negroes" are not permitted to have a part in the government under the new constitution.

Sept. 6,1839 - After forming a new government, various Cherokee factions, including one led by John Ross, ratify a new constitution. Regarding blacks living among the tribe, the new constitution states: "No person who is (N)egro and mulatto parentage, either by the father or mother's side, shall be eligible to hold any office of profit, honor or trust under this government."

Oct. 28, 1861 - "A Declaration by the People of the Cherokee Nation of the Causes Which Have Impelled them to Unite with Those of the Confederate States of America" is issued by the Cherokee Council. A statement concerning slavery is made that declares the Cherokee people are "inseparably connected with those of the South" despite past complaints the people may have had with "some of the Southern States." In the statement the council also addressed a fear that the U.S. government meant to "annul the institution of slavery in the whole of Indian country" and again take Cherokee lands.

Feb. 21, 1863 - The Cherokee National Council rescinds the Confederate Treaty and passes an act emancipating slaves in the CN. The council sets a fine of not less than $1,000 or more than $5,000 against anyone who holds slaves after June 25, 1863.

July 19, 1866 - A treaty signed by the CN and the U.S. government abolishes slavery and emphasizes that the tribe has already abolished slavery and treats it as a crime. And, as punishment for allying with the Confederacy, the tribe is forced by the U.S. government to give "all the rights of native Cherokees" to Freedmen (freed black slaves) residing within the CN.

Nov. 26, 1866 - The July 19 treaty causes "necessary" changes in the Cherokee Constitution. A change regarding citizenship stated: "All native born Cherokees, all Indians, and whites legally members of the Nation by adoption, and all freedmen 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 of July, 1866, and their descendents, who reside within the limits of the Cherokee Nation, shall be taken and deemed to be citizens of the Cherokee Nation."

June 10, 1896 - Congress authorized the Dawes Commission to hear and determine the applications for all persons, including Freedmen, who might apply for citizenship in the Indian nations and to enroll the citizens. The commission begins enrolling Cherokee people and determining their blood quantums, though the determination of a Cherokee person's blood quantum was primarily guesswork. Freedmen are placed on a separate roll. Eventually common land tribal lands were allotted. Each Cherokee household received 160 acres, each single individual above the age of 18, each orphan received 80 acres and each minor received 40 acres. Freedmen received 110 acres of land.

April 26, 1906 - Tribal governments in Oklahoma are officially terminated to make way for statehood the following year. The Freedmen represent 10 percent to 12 percent of the CN's population, according to the Dawes Commission. From 1907 until 1975 Freedmen receive per capita payments made to Cherokee citizens.

1971 - The federal government authorizes the CN to again hold elections for principal chief under the Principal Chiefs Act. "Blue cards" began being issued that year to Cherokee citizens including Freedmen. Freedmen vote in the 1971, 1975 and 1979 tribal elections.

1975 - The Cherokee people vote on and approve a new constitution. Article III of the constitution states that all Dawes enrollees and their descendents are citizens of the CN.

1983 - Freedmen are not allowed to vote in a tribal election. Tribal Registrar Dora Mae Watie sends letters to Freedmen citizens telling them their citizenship has been cancelled because the tribe now requires Cherokee citizens to also have a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood card. The Tribal Council also passes an act requiring all Cherokee citizens to provide a CDIB card based on their degree of blood listed on the Dawes Rolls for themselves or their ancestor. Because the Dawes Rolls did not list blood degree of for Freedmen citizens, this removed all Freedmen and their descendants from the rolls.

1983 - Bureau of Indian Affairs officials meet with tribal officials and emphasize that the Cherokee Constitution as well as the Treaty of 1866 granted citizenship to the Cherokee Freedmen and their descendants, and Freedmen should be allowed to vote.

1983 - The tribe's Judicial Appeals Tribunal holds in the case of Lucy Allen (a Freedmen) v. Cherokee Nation Tribal Council that a 1983 Cherokee Nation law limits Cherokee citizenship to Cherokees, Shawnees and Delawares by blood.

December 22, 1989 - A ruling is made in the case of R.H. Nero v. Cherokee Nation. Freedmen Nero brought the suit in 1984 alleging Freedmen were denied the right to vote and prevented from participating in federal Indian benefits programs. Judge H. Dale Cook of the US District Court "dismissed the claims against the tribe, its officials, and United States on basis of sovereign immunity and granted summary judgment in favor of federal officials, relying on doctrine of qualified immunity." On appeal, the circuit judge held that "(1) tribal sovereign immunity barred claims against Cherokee Nation; (2) United States and its agencies were entitled to sovereign immunity; and (3) plaintiffs failed to state claim against tribal or federal officials."

2001 - The JAT hears Riggs v. Ummerteskee, and held that an 1983 law limiting citizenship in the CN to Cherokees, Shawnees and Delawares by blood was constitutional. Bernice Riggs had argued the law unconstitutional because it excluded Freedmen. The tribal justices determined from the testimony and records provided that Riggs indeed had Cherokee blood.

May 24, 2003 - Cherokee citizens vote to remove the requirement of federal approval of any amendments to the tribe's constitution or a new constitution of the CN. Again, descendants of Cherokee Freedmen are not allowed to vote in the election.

June 2003 - A group of Cherokee Freedmen, allied with four former elected officicals who lost in their bids for re-election, contact the BIA to protest the tribe's May 24 general election. The group contends the citizenship rights of "Black Cherokees" are protected by the Treaty of 1866, and 25,000 "Black Cherokees" were not allowed to vote.

July 26, 2003 - A new Cherokee Constitution to replace the 1975 Constitution is approved by Cherokee voters during a runoff election. The BIA refuses to approve the new constitution because it does not approve of the amendment passed by Cherokee voters removing federal approval for amendments. The bureau also wants voting rights for Cherokee Freedmen and the CN to allow Freedmen to run for elected offices before they will approve the new constitution.

Aug. 2, 2003 - The BIA Affairs notifies the Cherokee Nation that it would not challenge the results of the tribe's May 24 general election.

2004 - Lucy Allen, a Freedmen from Tulsa, files a lawsuit against the Tribal Council, tribal registrar and registration committee in tribal court. She challenges tribe's authority to strip citizenship from descendants of Dawes enrollees who are citizens based on the 1975 tribal constitution.

March 7, 2006 - August 2006

The Judicial Appeals Tribunal ruled 2-1 for Lucy Allen in her lawsuit against the CN. The ruling reversed the 2001 JAT decision in Riggs v. Ummerteskee and opened the tribe's citizenship roll to the descendants of Freedmen who were included in the Dawes Rolls of the Five Civilized Tribes.

The ruling states: "The Cherokee citizenry has the ultimate authority to define tribal citizenship," but "when they adopted the 1975 constitution was adopted it did not limit membership to people who possess Cherokee blood. Instead they extended membership to all the people who were 'citizens' of the Cherokee Nation as listed on the Dawes Commission Rolls."

Freedmen have citizenship rights in the Cherokee Nation, the ruling further states, based on the Treaty of 1866 as well as the 1975 Constitution.

A few days later during a Tribal Council meeting, Principal Chief Chad Smith said the interpretation of the Cherokee Constitution is controversial as to whether it excluded Freedmen or not, but it is very clear that the determination of who may or may not become a citizen is a question reserved for Cherokee voters.

In a Tribal Council Rules Committee meeting on April 27, Tribal Councilor Jackie Bob Martin introduced legislation to amend Article III of the Cherokee Constitution to require citizens to have Cherokee blood. The amendment states: "Notwithstanding any provisions of the Cherokee Nation Constitution approved on October 2, 1975, and the Cherokee Nation Constitution ratified by the people on July 26, 2003, upon passage of this Amendment, citizens of the Cherokee Nation shall be only those originally enrolled on, or descendants of those enrolled on, the Final Rolls of the Cherokee Nation, commonly referred to as the Dawes Rolls, for those listed as Cherokees by blood, Delaware Cherokees pursuant to Article II of the Delaware Agreement dated the 8th day of May, 1867, and the Shawnee Cherokees pursuant to Article III of the Shawnee Agreement dated the 9th day of June, 1869."

The council voted to table the legislation for 60 days and formed a Rules Sub-Committee to further discuss the Freedmen issue.

During a Tribal Council meeting on June 12, the council voted 13-2 to amend the constitution to require Indian blood for Cherokee citizenship. The amendment will go to a vote of the Cherokee people, but a resolution calling for a special election in the fall failed by a vote of 8-7.

A group of Cherokee citizens begin circulating an initiative petition in June asking CN citizens to support an Indian blood requirement amendment to the constitution and a special election in the fall of 2006. Circulators of the petition say they have more than 2,000 signatures.

As of July 15, 940 Freedmen have been enrolled as CN citizens.

Sources: "Slavery in the Cherokee Nation," Chronicles of Oklahoma, Vol. 11, No. 4, Dec. 1933; "Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties," Vol. II (Treaties), compiled and edited by Charles J. Kappler, 1904; Descendants of Freedmen Association; CN court documents 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2006; Cherokee Phoenix archives.
About the Author
Will Chavez is a Cherokee/San Felipe Pueblo Indian who has worked in the newspaper and public relations field for 25 years. During that time he has performed public relations work for the Cherokee Nation and has been a writer, reporter and photographer for the Cherokee Advocate and Cherokee Phoenix newspapers. 

For many years h ... • 918-207-3961
Will Chavez is a Cherokee/San Felipe Pueblo Indian who has worked in the newspaper and public relations field for 25 years. During that time he has performed public relations work for the Cherokee Nation and has been a writer, reporter and photographer for the Cherokee Advocate and Cherokee Phoenix newspapers. For many years h ...


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