Demanding Recognition

Artwork: Cherokee Nation citizen Marilyn Vann remains an advocate for the rights of Cherokee Freedmen descendants. She was appointed to the Cherokee Nation Environmental Protection Commission in 2021. Source: Marilyn Vann.

Freedmen continued to face indignities in the years before Oklahoma statehood. In 1883, the Cherokee National Council passed a law restricting per capita payments from the sale of tribal lands to citizens who possessed Cherokee blood. Though vetoed by Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Dennis Bushyhead, the National Council overturned it. During the Dawes enrollment, Freedmen were placed on a separate list from other Cherokee Nation citizens.

With the passage of the Curtis Act of 1898, Cherokee Nation’s government and institutions were largely dissolved by the end of 1906. Political winds, however, shifted in favor of tribal self-determination in the late 1930s. In 1971, Cherokee Nation citizens, including Freedmen descendants, received citizenship cards and cast their votes for Cherokee Nation Principal Chief. This advancement was short-lived. The tribe canceled Freedmen’s citizenship in 1983, and disenfranchised Freedmen descendants took their suits to federal and tribal courts. In 2007, Cherokee voters — excepting Freedmen descendants — voted to amend the constitution limiting citizenship to by-blood Cherokees.

In August 2017, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan made his landmark ruling that “Cherokee Freedmen have a present right to citizenship in the Cherokee Nation that is coextensive with the rights of Native Cherokees” under the Treaty of 1866. Cherokee Nation did not appeal the decision and began processing Freedmen descendants’ citizen applications. Marilyn Vann, a leader in the Freedmen community, filed to run for an at-large seat on the Tribal Council of the Cherokee Nation in February 2021. That same month, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruled the words “by blood” be stricken from the Cherokee Nation Constitution and its laws. Today, more than 15,000 descendants of Cherokee Freedmen are registered Cherokee Nation citizens.

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