Cherokee Nation adopted racism from Europeans. It’s time to reject it.

As our tribe debates Cherokee history and identity, Cherokee citizens with white privilege carry the most responsibility to move our tribe forward.

 

On a warm Saturday morning this June, a crane pulled up to the courthouse square in downtown Tahlequah, Oklahoma. As controversial monuments were being taken down by activists and cities across the country, the Cherokee Nation shook two Confederate monuments loose from their foundation, strapped them to a trailer, and put them in storage.  

“There are some painful references on these monuments,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said at the courthouse square. “And I think we live in a time when we need to be mindful of the unity we have here on the courthouse Capitol Square.”

One of the monuments, a 13,000-pound slab of granite, was installed in memory of my great-uncle, Stand Watie, who led the Cherokees on the side of the Confederacy. The Cherokee Nation‘s role in the United States Civil War is complex, and Watie was the last Confederate general to surrender. Watie’s monument and a marble fountain memorializing Confederate soldiers were installed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1913 and 1921, at a time when the square was controlled by the state of Oklahoma.

Stand Watie, pictured when he was leader of the Treaty Party of the Cherokee Nation, in 1862.

I can’t think of a single topic on which Cherokees agree, and the removal of the monuments was no exception. After it was announced, tribal citizens immediately took to Facebook. Many said that the monuments represented racism, while others argued that their removal erased history. Some pointed out the fact that the Daughters, not the tribe, installed them. Others dug up the early 1900s rolls of the organization and noted that the local chapter was largely Cherokee. A petition to restore the monuments has garnered less than 800 signatures, out of a tribal citizenry of more than 380,000. 

This controversy is not new to our tribe. The Cherokee Nation has a long history of anti-Black racism, one that includes adopting Southern chattel slavery from the American South in the early 1800s and our modern government’s disenfranchisement of the descendants of the people we enslaved. It’s a history that still divides our citizens over what rights the descendants of those freedmen should have, as well as the larger conversation concerning who is “legitimately” Cherokee. 

We need to do more to confront that history within our tribe. But there is a parallel history of race within Cherokee Nation, one that for centuries has shaped our attitudes toward and laws regarding Black Cherokees. And that is even more difficult for our tribe to talk about: Cherokees and whiteness.  

Intermarriage with white people started for Cherokees in the 1700s during a period of expanding trade relationships, multiple smallpox epidemics and intermittent conflicts with white settlers marked by massacres that wiped Cherokee towns off the map. The marriages served two purposes. For the male traders, who had no rights as non-Cherokees in Cherokee country, they brought legal protection and economic advantage. For Cherokee women, the white men filled places that had been left vacant by disease and violence. Martin Schneider, a German missionary of the Protestant Moravian movement, wrote that all the white traders he encountered in his travels during the early 1780s were married to Cherokee women.  

Such intermarriage proceeded for decades without much disruption to concepts of race and Cherokee identity. After all, Cherokee identity was based on clan; if your mother was Cherokee, you were, too. But in 1825, all that changed. Cherokee men (including John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, two of my ancestors) started marrying white women. They petitioned the Cherokee National Council to change Cherokee citizenship from clan to lineal descent, so that children with a Cherokee father and white mother would still be citizens. And — probably because of the men’s prominence within Cherokee politics — the council obliged. 

The National Council had taken up a similar question about mixed-race Cherokees and arrived at a different conclusion just one year earlier. On Nov. 11, 1824, the nation passed a law stating that “intermarriages between Negro slaves and Indians, or whites, shall not be lawful.” For decades, Cherokee citizens — including my family — practiced the institution of slavery, which they adopted from the Southern U.S. Cherokee law now barred the people they had enslaved and their descendants from citizenship in our tribe.  

At this pivotal moment — when the Cherokee ceased using the clan system to determine citizenship — we simultaneously made more space for Cherokees who were mixed white, while excluding Cherokees who were mixed Black. 

By 1850, an estimated half of all Cherokee citizens were of mixed race.  Prior to Oklahoma statehood, in 1907, the Cherokee Nation included Cherokee Indians, adopted Delaware, adopted Shawnee, intermarried whites, freedmen and their descendants. With the exception of a few rolls leading up to allotment, the records the nation kept of its citizens did not include blood quantum — or even note who was Cherokee “by blood” and who was not. But the Dawes Roll, which was created so the United States could divide up communally owned tribal land and eventually open it up to white settlers, changed that. Between 1898 and 1914, as the roll was completed, the lines of citizenship hardened.  

At first, when land was allotted to tribal citizens, it could not be sold; the nation wanted to protect its landowners from predation. But as white settlers’ demand for land grew, Congress changed the rules. The first people Congress lifted restrictions on were those on the freedmen roll. Congress also lifted restrictions on people who had less than half Indian blood, and it allowed white guardians to control the property of anyone who had over half. The system treated Cherokees differently based on race and blood quantum, but arguably everybody lost. 

For much of the 1900s, the U.S. limited Cherokees’ self-governance. In 1950, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians ratified its own Constitution and gained federal recognition. And then, in 1975, the Cherokee Nation drafted our Constitution and ratified it in 1976. 

In that original Cherokee Constitution, citizenship was based on lineal descent from an ancestor listed on the Dawes Roll. But by 1983, descendants of people listed on the freedmen roll were being told they could not vote. What followed was a decades-long legal battle that included tribal court cases, federal court cases, a constitutional amendment, and a bitter fight over race and Cherokee identity. Many feared that enrolling freedmen descendants would shift political power in the tribe and take away resources from the people who needed them most. 

At the time, demographics in Cherokee Nation were shifting dramatically. But those shifts came less from the citizenship of freedmen descendants than from the increasing numbers of mixed-white Cherokees. In the 1970s, there were approximately 40,000 registered Cherokees. By 1999, there were over 200,000 tribal citizens — 90% of whose blood quantum was a quarter or lower. If you do the math, then, it’s absurd to worry about the political power and the potential resource drain of thousands of freedmen descendants, when there are hundreds of thousands of lower blood quantum, mixed-white Cherokees, of which I am one.

Talking about blood quantum as a measure of Cherokee identity is a tricky business when it is still being used today by the United States to deny tribal nations their inherent sovereignty and treaty rights. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Cherokee Nation in the Baby Veronica case (Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, 2013), the first line of its decision did not mention the law or the child’s well-being, but rather focused on the little girl’s degree of Indian blood. To be clear, the child is Cherokee because, like all our citizens, she is a member of our tribe, not because of her government-assigned degree of Indian pedigree. 

And, at the same time, it is undeniable that those of us who are mixed-white Cherokee citizens have more privilege — not only because the broader American society rewards whiteness, but because we have more power in our tribe. We are the majority, and by a wide margin. And with that power comes a lot of responsibility. 

Today, we are at another pivotal moment in Cherokee history. In 2017, after a federal court order, the nation restored the inherent Cherokee citizenship rights of the freedmen descendants. But even though the decision offers an opportunity for healing within our tribe, that’s not guaranteed. As the recent controversy over Confederate monuments makes clear, the court decision doesn’t magically wipe away 200 years of history — or end all of the prejudice and denial that comes with it. 

Workers remove Confederate monuments in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, on Saturday, June 13, 2020.
Cherokee Nation

The people who installed the monuments on the courthouse square were Cherokee, but their reasoning is not flattering to our tribe. In a biographical pamphlet sold to raise money, the chairwoman of the General Stand Watie Monument Committee wrote that the 1866 treaty was called the “Dark Treaty” because “it gave the Negroes of slave-owning Cherokees the right to suffrage.” At the same time that Black Americans were being terrorized by lynching and racial violence for advocating for political equality in the United States, these Cherokees believed Black people shouldn’t have the right to vote. 

Throughout our history, Cherokees have taken things from Europeans, adapted them and made them ours. We added glass beads to our bandolier bags, a crescent shape to our gorgets, and hog meat to our cuisine. But some of the things that we took from Europeans serve neither our tribe nor our people. From white society, we adopted racism — plain and simple. That is our history. Rooting out the visible ways that racism still exists within the Cherokee Nation is not erasing our history, but building a better future for our tribe. 

Rebecca Nagle is a writer, advocate and citizen of Cherokee Nation living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Follow @rebeccanagleEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Note: This story has been updated to fix an editing error that insinuated the tribal government currently disenfranchises the descendants of enslaved people.

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