Maybe Your Great-Grandmother Really Was Cherokee

A new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian traces black-Native American relations from the 1500s to the present.

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A visitor gets a clear sense that the leaders of the National Museum of the American Indian, which collaborated with the Museum of African American History and Culture, wanted to put the conflict over the tribal rights of Cherokee Freedmen into a broader perspective.

I think that’s a good thing, as I’m a descendant of Cherokee Freedmen, former slaves and free blacks who lived among the tribe. My mother’s ancestors had ties to the Cherokee from at least the early 1800s in Georgia and then in Indian Territory from the 1830s until Oklahoma became a state in 1907.

I grew up listening to my mother, grandmother and a grand-aunt talk about that side of the family having Cherokee blood and receiving land as citizens of the tribe. My research has documented what they said and uncovered what they didn’t—that some ancestors were enslaved, while others were free. As far as I’m concerned, Cherokee citizenship is a birthright my ancestors earned the hardest way.

However fabled, the Cherokee are only one tribe, so I appreciate the exhibit’s effort to examine red-black contacts over time and across all tribes. But what was the nature of most of those contacts? This is where the exhibit, however constructive its aims, falls short.

After all, the Cherokee weren’t the only tribe to own slaves. In their bad company were the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole, the other southeastern tribes that federal troops forcibly uprooted and relocated in the 1830s to what became Oklahoma.