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As the country reckons with race, will tribal nations lead the way?

The descendants of those once enslaved by tribes continue to push for equality.

In this 2011 photo, Rena Logan, a member of a Cherokee Freedmen family, holds a picture of her grandfather, grandmother and mother at her home in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Logan’s ancestors were enslaved by the Cherokee Indians in the 1800s. | Dave Crenshaw / The Associated Press

Last July, Indian Country rejoiced in a rare win for tribal sovereignty in the nation’s highest court. In a ruling that would reshape the jurisdictional landscape of Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court found that since the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reservation was not disestablished by an 1866 treaty, the tribe still has authority over criminal matters within its boundaries. Legal experts describe the decision as one of the most monumental federal Indian law cases in modern history.

But for many in this part of Indian Country, a similar win for tribal sovereignty was met with a different reception. In February, the neighboring Cherokee Nation Supreme Court struck the words “by blood” from its Constitution, similarly ruling that the rights outlined in the Treaty of 1866 would be upheld. This came after a 2017 U.S. District Court ruling found that the treaty guaranteed tribal citizenship to the descendants of “Freedmen” — the Black women and men once held in bondage by the tribe.

The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court decision reflects an argument that the tribe’s attorneys have made in adoption cases involving Cherokee children: Tribal citizenship is about more than race, it’s about nationality. Native nations are sovereign bodies whose citizenship revolves around treaties, legislation and historical precedent, and this ruling represents the Cherokee Nation’s willingness to reckon with its past participation in slavery, if in a halting and largely unwilling fashion, similar to the United States.

As a historian and a descendant of Black and mixed-race people enslaved by Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians, I am well aware that this issue is complex. But I believe, as I discuss in my forthcoming book, I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land, that Native nations must confront their slaveholding pasts, just as they push the United States to reckon with its own settler colonial sins.

Read more: https://www.hcn.org/issues/53.5/indigenous-affairs-race-racism-as-the-country-reckons-with-race-will-tribal-nations-lead-the-way

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High Country News

High Country News

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.