By Selwyn Duke
Just a week ago this Monday, the Cherokee Nation’s Supreme Court ruled that the tribe may revoke the citizenship rights of black members. The case stemmed from a 2007 vote in which the Nation amended its constitution to allow the expulsion of the descendants of Cherokee-held slaves; this inspired a lawsuit by the “Freedmen,” as the black Cherokee are known. A district court found in favor of the Freedmen, but the Supreme Court overturned that ruling, arguing that the Cherokee alone have a right to determine who is and is not a fellow tribesman. The result is that these erstwhile Cherokees, approximately 3,000 strong, will now be denied benefits that inclusion in the tribe affords, such as free healthcare and education, and voting and housing rights.
The Freedman had enjoyed Cherokee citizenship status ever since it was granted through a treaty with the U.S. government after the War Between the States. Previous to this, the Cherokees, along with tribes such as the Choctaw and Creeks, kept thousands of African slaves (additionally, some Indians allied themselves with the Confederacy during the war).
While these facts aren’t generally found in school textbooks, they should surprise no one. Slavery was once ubiquitous throughout the world, and North America’s indigenous people were no exception. For their embrace of the institution predated the white settlers’ arrival; moreover, this event presented new slaveholding opportunities: Some Indians made slaves of Europeans as well as Africans.
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