We read and absorb as truth the accounts of idealistic observers like Thomas More, Amerigo Vespucci, Las Casas, Rousseau, and others who bolster our view of our ancestors. We paint our people as innocents, pristine in relationship with all of nature, and pure in social structures and systems.
In our struggle for the rights of our Native people and our tribal governments, we point out the terrible things that we have suffered over history. Those accounts are manifold in history books in our research—the taking of our lands and our forced removal from primeval homelands, and the slaughter of our people from the earliest days of contact with the European immigrants. We have adopted the terms genocide and holocaust to describe the killing of our tribes through pestilence, removal, and unprovoked warfare. And we grieve the memory of the massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho families at Sand Creek in Colorado, the slaughter of Cheyenne men, women and children at Washita, rampant slaughter of the inhabitants of Indian Island in California, and the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee Creek.
Often we recall these things to put our conquerors and colonizers on a guilt trip to loosen up federal purse strings to meet the needs of our people, and to stir our political adrenaline to fight for our rights as the citizens of the first nations on this continent.
So it is painful in reading history to learn truths that disappoint our preconceptions of our nobler selves—to learn that we are just humans after all. Increasingly we are shaken to consciousness to this fact by actions in our tribal nations today.
Such is the case in the ongoing disenfranchisement of the Freedmen Blacks of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
It is true that the newly emancipated slaves of Cherokee plantations were forced onto the tribe by the victorious Union as punishment for having fought against the North in the Civil War, and the tribe was forced to incorporate them into their citizenry.
It is true that early on Cherokee entrepreneurs, trying to meet expectations of the conquerors and colonizers to assimilate, had become slave owners because it enabled them to compete agriculturally, especially in growing cotton. So, it can be said—albeit in gross irony—that as part of their efforts to become “civilized” Native farmers adopted slavery.
These Cherokee farmers and entrepreneurs were the core of the group that negotiated and signed the 1835 Treaty of New Echota which accepted removal west to Indian Territory. And it was the slave owners largely that formed the first wave to emigrate west on the Trail of Tears. But for these, the Cherokee elite, the Trail of Tears was facilitated by the slaves they took with them, and the hundreds more that were purchased along the way, most of them to be sold in the new territory.
And in the new territory, during the Civil War, the issue of slavery split each of the Five Civilized Tribes, and dragged them into the cruelest internecine warfare imaginable. Cherokee Stand Watie, General in command of the combined tribal troops fighting for the South and the last confederate general to surrender his forces at the end of the War, waged a cruel, merciless campaign against the anti-slavery forces of Apothle Yoholo, Creek leader of the ragtag intertribal group loyal to the Union. General Watie’s orders to his troops forbade them to take any black prisoners. They were to be killed upon capture. He drove Yoholo’s pathetic mass into Kansas, with scant supplies in the dead of winter, and left them there to die of the cold and starvation.
In the end, the surviving slaves were those that, out of loyalty, wouldn’t leave their Native plantations, and others that were afraid to leave knowing they would be killed as runaways. Some of the remaining slaves fought beside their Cherokee masters for the South. These were the Black people that were forced upon the Cherokee by treaty to take into their tribal membership rolls at the end of the Civil War.
This is my reading of that tragic era in Civil War history, which included several books on the subject. Thus, to me, the actions taken by the Cherokee Tribe and its Supreme Court to disenfranchise those Freedmen, and the way it was done with apparent political motives, reek of injustice, if not racism. And using tribal sovereignty as the reason—or excuse—cheapens it further. The exercise of its sovereignty also means that the Cherokee Nation could tell those black citizens that they are welcome to stay and enjoy the heritage that was forced onto them, however tenuous. Sovereignty is powerful stuff, but it must have humanity; it must have soul.
There is light, however, in this messy swamp that taints Indian America. Cherokee attorney Ralph Keen, Jr., who courageously represents the Freedmen in their cause, is to be commended for his defense of this embattled minority among minorities. He sets a standard for which the entire Cherokee Nation, and all Indian Country and beyond, must admire and celebrate. I knew his father, the late Ralph Keen, who must from beyond be proud of his son.
Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. His website is IktomisWeb.com.