Reporting from Tahlequah, Okla.— More than 170 years ago the proud Cherokee people in the South were brutally driven into exile in Oklahoma along what became known as the Trail of Tears. Now, an unlikely group of descendants is battling the tribe for its rights. They are the so-called black Cherokees, some of whose ancestors were held as slaves by members of the tribe.
Their quest came to a head in recent days as Cherokees went to the polls in northeastern Oklahoma’s Indian country to select a new chief. Of the more than 300,000 Cherokees in America, about 2,800 are black, and many say their fate could ride on the outcome. Tribes across the nation are wrestling with questions of identity, especially since tribal casinos began generating huge revenue. But the Cherokee Nation, unlike some tribes that allow gaming, does not divide casino profits among its citizens.
And though being a Cherokee in Oklahoma means having access to many services, such as a multimillion-dollar health center, the black Cherokees say the battle is really about identity.
Before the Civil War, some Cherokees owned slaves. After the war, tribal leaders signed a treaty granting blacks, known as Freedmen, the rights of native Cherokees.
Some tribal members say Freedmen were never really Cherokee, and that allowing their descendants to stay in the tribe unfairly grants them benefits and weakens tribal sovereignty.
Not all black Cherokees are descended from slaves owned by tribal members. Some are simply descended from blacks who married or had children with Cherokees and still refer to themselves as Freedmen.
Harold Baldridge, who works as a driver for the tribe, is among those who oppose citizenship for Freedmen. Baldridge, 58, has found records that show some of his Cherokee ancestors owned at least five slaves. He is quick to say, “That don’t make them Cherokee.”
Baldridge is a descendant of Nancy Ward, a legendary figure in 18th century Cherokee history.