Cherokee Identity and the Cherokee Freedmen
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07-10-2013, 08:40 PM (This post was last modified: 08-10-2013 04:01 PM by ghostexorcist.)
Cherokee Identity and the Cherokee Freedmen
I recently wrote this for one of my anthropology classes...

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Cherokee Identity and the Cherokee Freedmen

By Jim R. McClanahan

African Americans have had a tumultuous association with other races for the last 300 years. They were most exclusively used as beasts of burden by Euroamericans, who had them shipped in from western Africa to toil in the fields picking cotton used to make clothing. This is no surprise for those who have even a basic knowledge of American history. However, they may be surprised to learn that native people also owned slaves. One such group was the Cherokee. Just like their white counterparts, some Cherokee had children with their slaves, which put the resulting offspring in an ambiguous racial category that remains a source of contention up to the present day. In this paper I will discuss the ever-changing face of Cherokee identity and the place of Black Cherokee within Cherokee society. Ultimately, I intend to show that the Cherokee have an obligation to the “Freedman,” their former slaves and descendants of mixed-blood, because the Cherokee identity is not just one of biology but nationalism as well.

The ever-changing face of Cherokee identity is a complicated issue spanning three centuries. The mantle of “Cherokeeness” was originally carried by females due to the matrilineal clan system that the Cherokee adhered to. This is because they considered blood to be a very powerful medium, especially menstrual blood. Their folklore imbued it with magical properties capable of creating life just like a woman. The Cherokee had 7 clans (World, Deer, Bird, Paint, Long Hair, Potato, and Blue), and women could only marry into clans related to their father since males didn’t carry the Cherokee mantle. With the overlapping of Cherokee and Euroamerican territory in the 18th- and 19th-century came a new source of men. Cherokee women were able to marry outside the tribe, meaning that any resulting mixed-blood children were considered Cherokee. This is because they received the ever important Cherokee blood from their mother. However, this all changed when both men and women began to widely marry outside of the tribe. The children of males may have had Cherokee blood, looked native, and spoken the language, but they were not Cherokee because their mothers were a different race. The Cherokee later adopted the western patrilineal system to fix this problem.

The encroachment of the white man did not have a positive effect on the Cherokee. They began to absorb more and more white culture as a means of agency, a way of resisting against and protecting themselves from the US government. For instance, they took to selling slaves captured from other tribal groups to make money. When black slaves proved to be more resistant to western germs than their native counterparts, the Cherokee began to help capture runaways, which later led to the ownership of black slaves. Their illicit history with slavery did not end here (see below). The Cherokee adopted slavery as a means of casting an aura of civility. They figured if they acted more white—adopting English, western clothing, slavery, etc.—that Euroamericans would treat them more as equals and not savages. However, this didn’t matter in the long run because Euroamericans classified native peoples in a racist biology-influenced hierarchy with whites at the top, natives in the middle, and blacks at the bottom. No matter how white they tried to be, they were still considered inferior, separate, the “Other.” This led to colonialist policies, such as the US government enveloping more and more Cherokee land. An example of this is the tragic “Trail of Tears” in which the government forced the Cherokee to relocate from the Southern US to Oklahoma in 1830.

The government began to once again absorb native land several decades later. They hoped to civilize the Cherokee, so they began to allot portions of the land back to them for agriculture use in the Dawes Act (a.k.a. General Allotment Act) of 1887. However, the US wanted to restrict how much land was given to the Indians by creating a sliding rule for determining if someone was “native” enough. The decades of intermixing between the Cherokee and Euroamerican population had put many people into an ambiguous racial category. The government came up with the racist concept of “blood quantum,” a type of pseudoscientific measure of blood purity. For instance, if someone was half-Cherokee-half-white, their blood quantum would be one-half. Anyways, those who could prove that they had a certain level of native blood were included in the Dawes Roll (1893-1906). This roll is quite important because it is from this list that all people currently enrolled as members of the Cherokee Nation trace their native heritage. Blood quantum became the rule on which all Cherokee measured their native “authenticity.” Thus, they absorbed this hegemonic concept as a way of negotiating their identity. Blood quantum is so important today that it is listed on a tribal/government issued Certificate Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) card that is needed in order to qualify for things like tribal healthcare.

[Image: 1l50.jpg]

This cartoon is a perfect example of the Cherokee
obsession with "authenticity" and blood quantum.

The Cherokee continued to intermix with the white population over the following decades. This led to different aggregating groups of mixed- and full-blood individuals who had different views on what constituted an authentic Cherokee identity. These groups have continued to argue over these traits up through the present. Some are only Cherokee in name because their ancestry is more white, while others have the classic dark features commonly associated with Indians. So if phenotype can’t be solely relied on, then four other criteria are important in determining if someone is considered Cherokee or not. The first is participation in one of two mainstream ways of religious life: Keetoowah stomp-dancing and Cherokee Baptist Christianity; the second is speaking the Cherokee language; the third is involvement in community affairs; and the fourth is acting Cherokee, which is essentially a type of reserved nature that is not outgoing or flashy. Not everyone has all of these traits, but yet they are still considered Cherokee to one extent or another. This just shows how flexible the Cherokee identity is. A prime example of this is how even someone who is a mixed-blood can be socially considered a “full-blood” if they are a heritage caretaker, such as a Cherokee medicine man.

There are several well-known cases of Cherokee having children with their former slaves. One was the full-blood Cherokee warrior named Shoe Boots (Chulio) who lived during the late-18th- to early mid-19th-century. Shoe Boots was married to three different women during his life; the first was a Cherokee woman, the second a white woman, and the third a former slave. His children with the white woman were automatically considered Cherokee because of their father (the Cherokee had already switched to patrilineal descent by this time). However, he was worried about the ambiguous status of his mixed-blood offspring with his third wife. He petitioned the Cherokee court to recognize them as Cherokee so they wouldn’t be doomed to a life of slavery following his death. The court granted this request but told him to not have any more children with his wife. Shoe Boots, unfortunately, did not follow this prohibition. The court refused his future requests to acknowledge these children, and so when he died, they were sold into slavery. A later example was Mary Walker, a mixed-blood woman of Cherokee, white, and black heritage. She tried to enroll in the Dawes Roll in the late 19th-century, but was refused when someone noted that, “She ain’t no Cherokee. She’s a nigger. That woman is a nigger and you are going to put her down as a nigger.” Mary and her own children were barred from enrolling on the simple basis of her limited black heritage. Both Shoe Boots and Mary serve as prime examples of the type of racism that pervades discussions of Cherokee identity. Cherokees internalized the aforementioned racial hierarchy, placing themselves on par with whites and looking at blacks, or anyone of such mixed-blood, in a negative light.

Race has played a large role in Cherokee politics over the centuries. Cherokee chiefs were at one time full-blood individuals, but “White Cherokee,” those with a very low level of blood quantum, rose to prominence starting in the late 19th-century. The white Cherokee elite never pushed for a set minimum on blood quantum because this would have shut them out from being tribal members. They have continually marginalized full-blood individuals to keep them from gaining power that might otherwise challenge their place at the top of the hierarchy. Cherokee Freedmen have been marginalized for much longer. Although the tribal council passed an act to end slavery when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the majority of Cherokee slave owners refused to give up their “property.” The US Government signed a treaty with the Cherokee on July 19, 1866 that forced them to emancipate their slaves and give them the same rights as natives living within the territory of the Cherokee nation. This essentially made them Cherokee in a political sense. This did not last long, however, because the Cherokee voted in 1880 to deny the Freedman the right of citizenship so that they couldn’t share in the money received from selling a large tract of tribal land. The Freedmen took the Cherokee to court in 1890 (Whitmire v. Cherokee Nation and United States) and won, but the Cherokee claimed that they had already distributed the money to the citizens of the nation and had nothing left. The US was then left holding the bill for the amount that the Freedmen were supposed to have received. Not surprisingly, the government didn’t cut them a check. The Freedmen’s troubles didn’t end here.

The Freedmen were continually denied citizenship up into the 20th-century. They were embroiled in court cases with the Cherokee nation from the 1910s through the 70s. Some (but not all) of the Freemen received benefits and voting rights until the Cherokee amended their national constitution in the 1980s changing the criteria for tribal eligibility. Not all Freedmen had native blood—or could provide documentation to that effect due to the racism surrounding the Dawes Roll—so the Cherokee used blood quantum as a way of shutting them out from tribal benefits. The Freedmen once again took the Cherokee to court; however, as usual, the judge ruled in favor of the latter because he, like his predecessors, had fallen into the trap of conflating blood with a racial identity. Many of the elder Freedmen have died off, leaving their descendants who have little knowledge of their own past. They all identify as African Americans and no longer care to fight for the right for inclusion as members of the Cherokee nation. But not everyone has given up; court battles have continued through the 2000s and 2010s. In fact, the US Supreme Court is currently deciding on a case involving these two parties.

Cherokees have two allegiances: the Cherokee Nation and the United States of American. They are in effect holders of dual nationality. Like the US, they have their own constitution, a congress, and a Supreme Court. They consider being “Cherokee” more a political identity, while being “Indian” a racial identity. Therefore, blood quantum is not a justifiable reason to shut the Freedmen out from tribal inclusion, especially when you consider the fact that Cherokee identity is so malleable to the point of being silly putty. There is not one standalone trait, whether phenotypical or cultural, that defines someone as being truly “Cherokee.” That is why they are legally (and morally) obligated by the Treaty of 1866 to give the Freemen all of the benefits originally promised to them. This is no different than the United States having an obligation to all of its citizens despite their background. But, instead, the Cherokee are still relying on outdated racism as a means of enforcing their sovereignty. This is truly a sad state of affairs. We can send high-tech machinery into interstellar space and manipulate the atom with ease, but we can’t stop one man from hating another because of the color of his skin.

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See the wonderful book Blood Politics: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (2002) by Prof. Circe Sturm (Oklahoma University) for more in-depth information.
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25-10-2013, 07:49 AM
RE: Cherokee Identity and the Cherokee Freedmen
Actually, there are many cases against the cn one being my mother, Leatrice Tanner-Brown *Harvest institute freedmen federation! And yes we will win. ..
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25-10-2013, 12:09 PM
RE: Cherokee Identity and the Cherokee Freedmen
(25-10-2013 07:49 AM)rlbf7 Wrote:  Actually, there are many cases against the cn one being my mother, Leatrice Tanner-Brown *Harvest institute freedmen federation! And yes we will win. ..

Best of luck to you.
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