Cherokee Freedmen Protest Cherokee Election

BIA Refuses to Ratify Cherokee Election and Will Investigate Charges

July 31, 2003


Descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen recently protested the Cherokee Nation election, based on the tribe’s refusal to allow them to register and vote in the elections and to participate in their nation as full citizens. This protest was made to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) through the Norman, Oklahoma law firm of Velie and Velie. As a result the BIA has not certified the recent Cherokee Election, and the final results are still pending decision of the BIA. In addition, the BIA is looking into the election procedure in the Cherokee Nation.


In early July, several Freedman representatives issued a letter to the BIA, protesting the May 24, Cherokee elections. Shortly afterward, Hastings Shade and 3 members who sit on the tribal council sent a follow up petition in support of the letter from the Freedmen. The council members were Stephanie Wickliffe-Shepherd, Mary Flute-Cooksey, and Don Crittenden, and support came also from Robin Mayes, one of the candidates for Principal Chief.  They requested that the BIA not certify the elections due to irregularities in the tribal elections and due to the Cherokee government’s refusal to allow the Cherokee Freedmen their rights to vote and to participate in affairs as citizens.


Principal Chief Chadwick Smith was notified on July 25. He was also informed that the recently held Cherokee Nation elections of May 24, 2003 would not be certified by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).  The BIA states that the election procedures to select the Principal Chief had never been approved by the Department of the Interior as required by law; also, the BIA raised its right to not approve constitutional amendments where there were issues of Cherokee Freedmen being denied the right to participate in the elections, based on a recent court case involving the Seminole nation with similar Freedmen issues.


The Cherokee Freedmen are descendants of free blacks and former slaves of the Cherokee Indians who were living in the Cherokee nation at the time of the Civil War. Many, if not the majority of the Freedmen did have Cherokee Indian blood. These Freedmen were given the rights of native Cherokee citizens in an 1866 treaty between the US government and the Cherokee nation.  These Freedmen were adopted into the tribe with full citizenship rights that same year. Freedmen tribal members held political office, voted, and participated as full members of the Cherokee nation. 


In a press release that has just been released by a newly formed Freedman's organization in Oklahoma, part of it reads:

   During the early 20th century, the Federal government Dawes Commission made a “final” roll of Cherokee citizens, including the freedmen in order to divide the tribal land owned in common between the tribal citizens. The roll included degrees of Indian blood for the native Cherokee including adopted Delaware Indians with no Cherokee blood, but not the Freedmen with Cherokee blood. Many of the Freedmen were sons and daughters of Cherokee leaders, were recognized as citizens of the Cherokee Nation but their blood was not recorded deliberately to limit the rights these Black Cherokees and their descendants would have in the future. This roll is now used by the nation to exclude the descendants of these very people who were adopted to come into compliance with the treaty of 1866.


Efforts to block the Freedmen occurred in 1983 when Ross Swimmer, then Principal Chief found out that most of the Freedmen were supporting a rival candidate for Principal Chief. Also during the Swimmer administration, the tribal council quickly passed an act which required that all tribal members be able to obtain a Certificate of Indian Blood (CDIB) card showing their degree of Indian blood. Since it was decided in the 1890s not to show any degree of Cherokee blood, of the Black Cherokees this act 90 years later in Swimmer's administration immediately took care of Swimmer’s opposing votes and also removed the African-Cherokee citizens from the rolls.  The former Chief is currently an official in the Department of the Interior, appointed by President Bush to head the Office of Indian Trust Transition.


The policy to ostracize the Freedmen continues to this day in the Cherokee Nation, and is endorsed faithfully by the tribe’s registration committee, sending Freedmen wishing the enroll themselves and their children repeatedly in circles to obtain CDIB cards which the committee knows they will not be allowed to obtain, due to the blood quantum loophole.  This is done continually and alleged to occur in the other nations known as the Five Civilized Tribes. 

The degree of blood also known as a measurement of "blood quantum" is based on an entirely unscientific, politically biased and contrived calculation created in the 1800s.  Hundreds of persons some even within the same family were arbitrarily put on different rolls-----some of rolls “by blood” others on “Freedman rolls” others on rolls as Adopted Delaware Indians and others on rolls such as “intermarried whites.” Adopted Delawares, Absentee Shawnees and others with no documented Cherokee blood are allowed to enroll their descendants as citizens, obtain cards, and make contributions to the Cherokee Nation as respected citizens. Freedmen are not.


Those who are of African and Cherokee ancestry---with documented evidence----are treated quite differently. They are directed to "go get a CDIB card," which puts them in a continuous circle of frustration and loss. Obtaining the card is based on the roll from the 1890s that consciously chose to leave their blood quantum blank.  Looking at the official tribal rolls, the column is left blank. It does not say 0% Cherokee blood; it is merely left empty. This is on the Final Rolls of all of the Five nations----Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole nations.


A court case was brought to the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court in 1998 addressed this very issue, and the registrar defended the actions by stating in the hearing that all the person had to do was to obtain this elusive CDIB card. Thus the plaintiff will simply give up, being elderly, and live to understand that her rights which she once held are now denied by her own people. 

Thus, the Cherokee Freedmen have no right to vote, no opportunity to participate fully in the community where they have been a part for more than 160 years. This challenge of the Cherokee Nation, is bringing the Cherokee practice of political apartheid to the public eye. 


Among the Cherokee Freedmen descendants making this formal complaint are members of a newly formed organization, The Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. The Association is a based in Oklahoma and professes a our mission to educate the public on the history, education, culture, genealogy, and the political rights of black Indians whose ancestors were classified as Freedmen on the tribal rolls of the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian Nations. 


These Cherokee Freedmen hope to end discrimination for black Indians in the areas of tribal enrollment, voting in tribal elections, and participation in tribal and BIA programs for Indians who are members of Federally Recognized tribes or the Descendants of Federally recognized tribal members. The developments of this story will interest the Freedmen of the other nations and the outcome and the certification of the Cherokee election will also remain in the air till these issues are addressed.