WGBH Senior Editor Ken Cooper with a photograph of his grandparents.

Credit: Photo Illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News

Judge Rules That Descendants of Slaves Owned By Cherokee Nation Have Tribal Citizenship Rights

September 8, 2017

Barbara Howard: Here's a story that took a back seat to all the recent hurricane coverage but is of personal interest to a member of the WGBH news staff.

It involves descendants of black slaves who were owned by members of the Cherokee nation. A federal judge ruled last week that these slave descendants, known as Cherokee 'Freedmen', have a right to tribal citizenship. This follows about ten years of litigation that WGBH Senior Editor Ken Cooper has been following closely. A cousin of his was a named litigant, and Ken himself is a descendant of Cherokee Freedmen. 

Back before the trail of tears forced them west, the Cherokee lived for a millennia down south...in what is now Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. Then in the late 1700s, Cooper says, slavery was introduced.

CLIP: Ken Cooper: Slavery had not been a practice of the Cherokee. It was a tradition that was adopted with the encouragement of the United States government in the very beginning. The idea was for the tribe to stop being hunters and gatherers roaming around and settle down and do agriculture in a big way. And the Cherokee could look around and see how white southerners did that and if they missed the point somehow, an early Indian agent established a demonstration farm in which he employed black slaves to do the work.

Edgar and Oma Lewis, Ken Cooper's maternal grandparents. Family photo from 1930.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ken Cooper

Barbara Howard: Cooper says slaves amounted to about 10 percent of the Cherokee population. These days the Cherokee nation stands at more than 300,000 members, making the Cherokee the second largest tribe in the country. Cooper remembers, as a boy, visiting relatives who had a home on what was Cherokee Tribal land in Oklahoma. That home had belonged to his pipe-smoking great-grandmother who identified as Cherokee. 

CLIP: Ken Cooper: On my mother's side, my family goes back to about the third or fourth great-grandparents that I have identified were slaves of the Cherokee. They were born in the early 1800s, the ones I know about. And I actually had two ancestors who were on the Trail of Tears in 1838-1839, when the tribe was forced out of the southeast to Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma. My ancestors walked shoulder-to-shoulder with those Cherokee Indians.

Barbara Howard: Then, during the Civil War, the Cherokee sided with the south -- the Confederacy.

CLIP: Ken Cooper: There was disruption in the Cherokee nation, so my relatives were displaced. Some went to Kansas. One went across the border into Arkansas and joined the Union Army and fought with colored troops. 

Barbara Howard: But the Cherokee had chosen the losing side. So one year after the Civil War ended, they had to enter a the Treaty of 1866. And like slave-holding states, they had to free their slaves and give them rights as members of the Cherokee nation. 

CLIP: Ken Cooper: And my ancestors were among the Cherokee Freedmen who got those citizenship rights. (Barbara Howard): Was that put in writing? (KC): Yes. And it's actually a very simple phrase in the treaty. It says "The Cherokee (Freedmen)," and this is a direct quote, "shall have all the rights of Native Cherokee".

Barbara Howard: And families like Ken Cooper's enjoyed tribal membership. Then, about ten years ago, the Freedmen Cherokees were...in Cooper's words..."kicked out of the tribe." That triggered a lawsuit. Last week, Cooper says, based largely on that treaty signed just after the civil war, the court ruled in favor of the Cherokee Freedmen.

William and Florence Ragsdale, brother and sister. Florence was Ken Cooper's great-grandmother who appears as Florence Rogers, her first married name, on the Cherokee census document from 1901. Family photo from 1953.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ken Cooper

CLIP: Ken Cooper: Last week's ruling basically reaffirms that the provision of the Treaty of 1866 still holds, and that Cherokee Freedmen descendants like myself are entitled to citizenship, the right to vote, to run for office, and to receive benefits that the federal government provides the Native Americans. And if we lived in Oklahoma, benefits and services that the Cherokee nation provides its members. (Barbara Howard:) Okay. So, that's for you or your relatives? (KC:) Anybody who is a direct descendant of my mother. That's about a dozen of us altogether.

Barbara Howard: And the Cooper family is but one of many Freedman Cherokee families. Ken Cooper's reaction when that court ruling came down?

Ken Cooper: (KC) I was jubilant. (Barbara Howard) Where were you?  (KC) I was at home and a cousin of mine who lives in DC called to give me the news. She was spreading the news because her husband, my cousin who was actually a named party to the lawsuit, she called and said, "somebody called (me) and said somebody called up Sam and said 'You won'. And I'm thinking well, 'What did Sam win? He won an award. He's a journalist." And then she explained to me what was the case. It was a very happy evening."  

Barbara Howard: In the end, the case had raised issues of race and identity. Cooper was asked about that. 

CLIP: [(Barbara Howard) Ken, you said that your great grandmother, the one who smoked a pipe? You said that she identified as Cherokee. How do you identify? (KC) Interesting question, Barbara. I am an African American. But I'm also a Cherokee Freedman and also a Cherokee. When I lived in India, I had an Indian friend who once said to me, "You Americans can't understand. You need to be put into one category." And I think that's kind of true, so I actually fit more than one category and if you think about it, we all have multiple identities.

Barbara Howard:  The Cherokee Nation recently announced it will not appeal last week's court decision. That means that the Cherokee Freedmen's right to tribal citizenship stands.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ken Cooper


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