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Cherokee Nation Seeking To Collect Family Histories Of Slave Descendants, As It Remembers Those Enslaved By The Tribe

The Native American nation put thousands of African Americans in bondage, denied them citizenship and are atoning for the wrongful deed.

The Cherokee Nation, one of the largest Native American tribes, is acknowledging its role in slavery and discrimination against its Black members.

Axios reports that Cherokee officials are searching for the descendants of Black slaves who were once owned by tribal members and asking them to share their family stories. It’s an effort to acknowledge the evils of slavery and correct the lost history of Black Cherokees.

"The act of slavery, which was condoned by a Cherokee law, was wrong and a stain on the Cherokee Nation," Chuck Hoskin Jr., the Cherokee Nation’s principal chief, said. "As chief, I apologize that we did that, and then we're taking affirmative steps to remedy that."

Today, there are more than 390,000 tribal citizens across the globe. About 8,500 people of that population are enrolled citizens of Freedmen descent, Axios says. Cherokee Freedmen are descendants of Black people once enslaved by the tribe.

Over the years, there have been legal disputes over who can be considered a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, which only four years ago recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an official holiday.

Tribal officials are now trying to make amends by piecing together the Freedmen’s history. They are urging those descendants to share family stories, photographs and memorabilia, which they would house in an exhibit at the Cherokee National History Museum. It's part of the Cherokee Freedmen History Project.

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A drawn-out legal battle over the right to Cherokee citizenship ended in 2021 with the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court’s ruling that removed the phrase “by blood” from the nation’s constitution, CNN reported.

The decision granted full tribal citizenship rights to the descendants of Cherokee slaves, including running for office and access to tribal health care. The ruling came in response to a 2017 U.S. district court ruling that also granted them full tribal citizenship rights.

As The Washington Post reported, tribal members have long disputed among themselves who can be a real Cherokee. With casino wealth at stake, some have called for using a DNA test to determine who can share in the gambling profits.

Marilyn Vann, a Cherokee Freedman descendant and president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, told Axios that she views the attempt to correct the historical record as a step in the right direction.

"Some who have been hostile to the freedmen just really show some misunderstand of history," Vann said, adding that Black Cherokees possess a treasure trove of oral histories, travel records and photos to give a fuller understanding of that lost history.

That history goes back to colonial times when Native Americans were once enslaved with African Americans. Some Cherokee people eventually became slaveowners themselves. In the 1830s, enslaved African Americans journeyed with their Cherokee owners to Oklahoma when President Andrew Jackson expelled the tribes from their ancestral homeland in the south, in the Indian Removal Act, what became known as the Trail of Tears.

The Cherokees were the largest slaveholders among Native American nations, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. They used Black slaves as English language translators but mostly as farmworkers and servants. In 1842, a number of slaves revolted and tried to escape to freedom in Mexico.

By 1861, about 4,000 enslaved Black people were living among the Cherokee people. The tribe abolished slavery in 1863 and signed a treaty with the U.S. government that granted citizenship rights to the Cherokee Freedmen. However, tribal leaders routinely denied giving them those rights.

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