It’s an obscure part of antebellum history, but members of no fewer than five Native American tribes participated in chattel slavery. Before they were driven from their lands in what’s now known as the U.S. South, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole nations all had members who bought and sold black people as property.
In 1838 and 1839, when the U.S. government forced the Cherokee, the largest tribe, to relocate from their land east of the Mississippi River to what is now known as Oklahoma, enslaved black people, black spouses of Natives and mixed children joined them.
Some 30 years after this forced march that Natives called the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee Nation was divided by the Civil War. Some supported and even fought for the Confederacy, while others sided with the Union.
The Cherokee eventually signed the Treaty of 1866, an agreement with the federal government that granted enslaved black people who were freed voluntarily or by law "all the rights of the Native Cherokee." In addition, "all free colored persons" and their descendants who were living on Cherokee land or set to return in six months received these rights.
With a population about 300,000 members, the Cherokee Nation determines its citizenship not by blood quantum, but by whether an ancestor is on what’s called the Dawes Rolls. In those records black Cherokees were designated as Freedmen without consideration of their lineage. As a result, the tribe has always questioned their membership. In a 2007 special election that resulted in a change to the Cherokee constitution, a majority of voters chose to strip some 30,000 Cherokee Freedmen of their tribal citizenship. These Freedmen have lost access to the healthcare, education and housing benefits funded by the billion-dollar Cherokee casino industry.
The Cherokee Freedmen are the topic of a new documentary, “By Blood," which is on the festival circuit and due to hit select theaters in August. Colorlines spoke with Marcos Burbery who co-directed the film with Sam Russell.