Cherokee Freedmen

Waynetta Lawrie (left), of Tulsa, Okla., stands with others at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City in 2007, during a demonstration by several Cherokee Freedmen and their supporters.Image and caption from NPR and the Associated Press.

“One of the key things, key takeaways I hope from this conversation, is that slavery is dynamic. It’s not one thing; it changes all the time. I think the best metaphor probably is to think about it as a kind of virus that mutates as it migrates. It may come into contact and kind of reform itself. So slavery itself is on the go, it’s dynamic”

Dr. Christina Snyder, 2019, on the podcast Teaching Hard History from the Southern Poverty Law Center

Including Indigenous enslavement in how we teach the history of American slavery changes so much about how we understand the past. Indigenous peoples had ideas about captivity that predate colonization. Captivity existed in some Native American tribes, before the arrival of Europeans, but in an entirely different form than what people today are familiar with. This type of captivity did not include viewing people as forms of property and objects that could be sold. Captivity didn’t mean that slavery was passed on or captivity was passed on from mother to child or was transgenerational and it wasn’t justified by the argument that one group of people were racially inferior and therefore were meant to be in slavery (McCoy, 2019). This captivity was fueled by kinship, fueled by repairing the social fabric. Captivity and kinship in the same sentence may read as a bit of a contradiction, but let me explain.

Taking captives as a byproduct of war was a common practice in many tribes. Many tribes lived by the rules that captivity was a kind of substitute for death in warfare. Often when parties go out, they were addressing a grievance, which was usually the loss of life because of enemies taking their people in war (Snyder, 2019). For example in a book titled The Westo Indians: Slave Traders of the Early Colonial South, Erin E. Browne described how the West Indians from the Northeast captured Indians from enemy tribes to trade to the Virginians for guns, ammunition, metal tools, and other goods (Coleman, 2017). In the West, Indians were buying and selling slaves as well. The Iroquois have a term for this, which is “the mourning wars.” To compensate for that loss to your people, it was necessary to enact justice. So a successful war party would take home captives, who would all have different situations depending on the tribe that they were captive to.

Three different things could happen to a captive. One is that that person could be executed as vengeance for the death of a loved one. This exemplifies kinship because the tribe who won would be getting vengeance for the death of a loved one. Getting revenge would show love to the dead, letting them know that they did not die in vain. The second thing is that the person could be adopted. In that sense, it’s taking a life and transforming it. Adoption is an example of kinship because it addresses the loss of a loved one, compensates for that by taking in someone new and incorporating them in society” (Synder, 2019). The final thing that could happen is that if a captive remained alive within an Indigenous community but was not adopted, that person could become what we would think of as a slave. Many Native American tribes were practicing a form of captivity before colonial times. However, the form of slavery that was introduced by Americans to Indians was new. With the introduction of the slave system in North America, that exploited both Indians and Africans as commodities, Indigenous people became a part of the system as well.

By 1809, there were 600 enslaved blacks living in the Cherokee Nation; by 1835, the number increased to 1,600 (Coleman, 2017). The more slaves that the Cherokee Nation had, the more profit they made. The Emancipation Proclamation declared that all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states shall be free. The proclamation did not apply to everyone, as Meredith McCoy states, “Indigenous peoples were not protected by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Emancipation Proclamation also did not apply to African slaves held in slavery by Indigenous peoples in Indian territory” (Snyder, 2019). In 1863, following President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Cherokee Nation issued the Cherokee Emancipation Proclamation, this proclamation called for the emancipation of all slaves in the Cherokee Nation (BlackPast, 2020). The Cherokee Freedmen were now free, but they did not have the same rights as other Cherokee Nation members. The Cherokee freedmen were “disenrolled, and that battle lasts for decades (McCoy, 2019). The Cherokee Freedmen were “free” and had to figure out where they fit into society as free people. The Cherokee Freedmen fought to be included and identified as Cherokee people. However, not everyone was open to having the Cherokee Freedmen counted as Cherokee people to the same rights. It’s not until 2017 in the Cherokee Nation that it was ruled by the Supreme Court that freed people to need to be reenrolled and receive tribal rights.

In the following blog post, I made it in the style of storytelling to provide a historical view on different perspectives about the Cherokee Freedmen fighting for their rights. I drew inspiration from people using fictional storytelling to explain difficult topics like race. An example of this is Derrick Bell’s story “The Space Traders.” In this story, aliens come to America and come with a proposition. The offer was gold, safe nuclear power, and other technological advances in exchange for the government’s handing over all Black citizens (Bell, 1992). One would expect white people to say no because of basic decency, but the story does not unravel that way. While many whites fought courageously to prevent this heinous deal from going down, much more support it as the only solution to the country’s problems which provided readers with an interesting perspective on race. I hope to do similar by including the perspective of Cherokee Freedmen fighting for their rights, James Turner, an attorney for the Cherokee Freedmen, and people showing different views on the controversy of accepting Cherokee Freedmen. In these different perspectives, I hope to provide the reader with an understanding of the controversy that existed in this period. The controversy centered around whether the former slaves had a right to share in monetary grants made to the Cherokee Nation by the federal government in return for land cessions.

Blog –

Anonymous –

How can the Cherokee Freedmen act as if they are a part of the Cherokee nation when they are slaves, even if the Cherokee Emancipation Proclamation says they are free? They won’t even get far considering their attorney, James Turner, who doesn’t even have a strong background in Indigenous rights. They might as well give up their fight.

Blog Responses –

Many of the Freedmen whose names were on that roll and their descendants have been and still are wrongfully denied membership in said nation. They will lose their rights unless action is taken. Action must be taken! AllyofCherokeeFreedmen1
@anonymous This comment is so ignorant and hateful. Cherokee Freedmen should be a part of the nation. Any arguments that say otherwise are basically equated to anti-black sentiments (Sturm, 2014). Why don’t you support the struggle for black people fighting for their rights? AllyofCherokeeFreedmen2
Why should we have to share our rights, money, and land with them? They are so lazy and want everything given to them. We’d have fewer resources, how is that fair to us? CherokeePerson1
@CherokeePerson we’ve lived here our whole lives, some of us occupied the same land for 40 years (Cobb, 2015). We raised stocks and crops, built homes and barns, and developed agricultural wealth. We have contributed to the economy of the freedmen and as a result, our Cherokee people. We deserve to have the same rights now that we are free. We are family, we are one. CherokeeFreedmen1
I agree with you @CherokeeFreedman, we even vote & hold office and exercise the rights of citizens. Also, @anonymous James Turner is extremely helpful and knowledgeable in all that he has helped us with. Please do your research before you say the wrong things. @CherokeeFreedmen2
@Anonymous Only indigenous people who can trace their lineal descent should be accepted into the Cherokee nation. Anyone who can’t is just trying to take our resources and benefit from identifying as Native Americans. @AllyofCherokeeFreedmen3 
@AllyofCherokeeNation3 Tracing lineal descent to individuals listed as Cherokee by blood is the rules of the Dawes Act (Chin, 2016). If we follow the policies that are made, then there should be no problems. If you can’t trace your lineage, then you shouldn’t be accepted into the Cherokee nation. @CherokeePerson2 
@AllyofCherokeeFreedmen2 I agree that opposition to accepting Cherokee Freedmen is anti-black. There is also a history of White supremacy that bounds full exercise of social rights based on White privilege, colorism, and anti-Blackness, creating an inherent property value in Whiteness that determines status in the United States (Chin, 2016). The opposition from members of the Cherokee nation shows the continuity of the Federal Government’s Indian “civilization” effort. @Cherokeefreedmen3
@CherokeeFreedmen2, Thank you for noticing how I have helped the community. I am happy to serve you. I have been the attorney for the Cherokee freedmen, despite my lack of legal training and never having been admitted to the bar. I continued to fight and succeeded in getting Congress to pass the Cherokee Freedmen’s Act in 1888, which authorized the payment of $75,000 to 3,881 Cherokee freedmen, to be divided equally among them (Turner, 1999).


Bell, D. (1992). The Space Travelers.

Chin, Jeremiah, Nicholas Bustamante, Jessica Ann Solyom, and Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy. (2016). “Terminus Amnesia: Cherokee Freedmen, Citizenship, and Education.” Theory into practice 55, no. 1: 28–38.

Cobb, D. (Ed.). (2015). Say We Are Nations: Documents of Politics and Protest in Indigenous America since 1887. CHAPEL HILL: University of North Carolina Press.

McCoy, M. (2019). Inseparable Separations: Slavery and Indian Removal. Teaching Hard History, Season 2, Episode 13.

Sturm, C. (2014). Race, sovereignty, and civil rights: Understanding the Cherokee freedmen controversy. Cultural Anthropology, 29(3), 575-598.

Synder, C (2019). Indigenous Enslavement. Teaching Hard History. Season 2, Episode 2.

“Turner, James Milton.” (1999). Oxford African American Studies Center.