The Experiment Podcast: Who Belongs in the Cherokee Nation?

Marilyn Vann is a Black woman descended from people enslaved by the Cherokee Nation. More than 150 years after emancipation, her fight for citizenship continues.

Surrounded by trees, Marilyn Vann stares intensely at the camera. The image is set into a frame featuring The Experiment’s show art.
Marilyn Vann, President of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association and the African Indians Foundation

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From the time she was a little girl, Marilyn Vann knew she was Black and she was Cherokee. But when she applied for citizenship in the Cherokee Nation as an adult, she was denied. What followed was a journey into a dark part of Cherokee history that not many people know about and even fewer understand: Vann and her family are descended from people who were enslaved by the Cherokee Nation. They were freed after the Civil War, but that wasn’t the end of their struggle. In 1866, the Cherokee Nation made a promise—a promise of citizenship for these “freedmen” and their descendants. But in the years that followed, that promise would be at the center of a battle between civil rights and sovereignty.

Related Viewing: Will Congress Fulfill a 184-Year-Old Promise?

A transcript of this episode will soon be made available. Please check back.

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This episode was produced by Tracie Hunte, with help from Gabrielle Berbey. Editing by Jenny Lawton and Julia Longoria. Fact-check by Will Gordon. Sound design by Joe Plourde with additional engineering by Jen Munson. Transcription by Caleb Codding. Special thanks to Gregory Smithers and Will Chavez.

Music by Parish Council (“Marmalade Day”), Keyboard (“Freedom of Movement,” “Over the Moon,” “Ojima,” “Being Darrell,” and “Only One”), and Water Feature (“Richard III (Duke of Gloucester”). Additional music by Alexander Overington. Additional audio from Bloomberg, Global News, and Fox News.

A transcript of this episode is presented below:

(Something—a whinny suggests a horse—rustles through grass, and its progress halts with the clack, clack of a gavel and a resonant bed of horns and strings, which fade out themselves moments later.)

Julia Longoria: This week, we hand things off to correspondent Tracie Hunte.

Tracie Hunte: Okay!

Longoria: Okay, Tracie! Where does this story start?

Hunte: Well, for me, it starts with this woman named Marilyn Vann.

Hunte: Hi, Marilyn?

Marilyn Vann: Yes!

Hunte: Hi! This is Tracie from The Experiment. How are you today?

Vann: Oh, I’m doing pretty good!

Hunte: All right! Um …

(The conversation fades under.)

Hunte: Marilyn lives in Oklahoma.

Vann: I grew up in a very poor family. My parents had little education.

Hunte: And she grew up in Ponca City, a small town about an hour and a half north of Oklahoma City. It’s named after the Ponca tribe.

Vann: My dad was a Baptist deacon, and my parents, they—especially my father—really emphasized trying to do better. “You need to work hard!” And these were things that I took to heart.

When I was little, I wanted to be a CPA.

Hunte: (Laughing lightly.) Really? Why a CPA? I feel like that’s such a strange choice for a child.

Vann: I felt that was a position that, you know, it doesn’t matter your color, your appearance, whether you’re, uh, beautiful or ugly, whatever! You know, if you can do a good job, you have a good chance of succeeding.

Hunte: Can you tell me, like, a little bit about how much you know about your ancestors and all of that?

Vann: I knew that I was mixed African and mixed Indian from the time I was, like, 5 years old, because a boy [A beat.] had asked me what kind of Indian that I was. And I asked my dad, and he said, “Well, you know, we’re Cherokee Indians.” But, he said, “we do have some colored blood.”

(A mechanical symphony plays underneath, clunking and plunking and humming and buzzing.)

Hunte: Marilyn’s dad had Black and Cherokee ancestors.

Vann: He knew he was a member of the tribe and he had received some land as a member of the tribe.

Hunte: Mhm.

Vann: But, you know, race or color didn’t really mean anything to me.

Hunte: Yeah, yeah.

Vann: So it’s just kinda like, “Well, okay.”

Hunte: Marilyn grew up. She didn’t become a CPA, but she did become an engineer. And although she never took the time to register as an official citizen of the Cherokee Nation, it was always a big part of her identity.

Vann: I am proud that my Cherokee ancestors survived. Certainly! I’m proud to be a Cherokee.

Hunte: So Marilyn decides she wants to get more involved in the tribe.

(The music quiets.)

Vann: That was late 2001. My daughter was in college.

Hunte: She was an empty nester with some time on her hands.

Vann: I thought that, you know, “Hey, this is a good time to—I think—to join my tribe, and see what’s going on. Maybe I can be of some service.”

Hunte: And so she fills out the paperwork to finally register.

Vann: And so I tell my husband, I says, “I think I’m going to send this application off.”

Hunte: And then she gets this … response.

Vann: I was very surprised, you know, to get this—this rejection letter back.  

Hunte: What did the rejection letter say?

Vann: You know, it said something about, um, [In a stuffy voice.] “There wasn’t a degree of Indian blood by this roll number.”

Hunte: Hmm.

Vann: And I said, “Well, what is—what are they talking about, [Again assuming the bureaucratic voice.] ‘There’s no degree of blood’? What does this mean?”

(Music plays: A beat plods along steadily underneath an aspirated keyboard, puffs of air.)

Vann: So I called someone at the tribal registration office, and I didn’t understand what they were saying. Called somebody at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and they just, you know, kind of blew me off. And I said—well, I said, “Now this sounds like a scam.”

Hunte: Why did it sound like a scam?

Vann: Well, it just didn't seem right that if my father is a member of this tribe—

Hunte: Mhm.

Vann: —that I, his daughter, don't qualify to register as a member of this tribe.

Hunte: Yeah, yeah.

Vann: So then I started reading things about how some lawsuit had been filed several years ago. And this, that, and the other, and I said … (Fades under.)

(A keyboard melody—twanging electronica—plays for just a moment.)

Hunte: And she starts meeting with other freedmen descendants—Cherokees who were having the same problem.

(The music fades out.)

Vann: And I said, “Okay, I see what all of this is about.”

Hunte: What was it “all about”? What—what do you mean by that? You see—

Vann: Well—what all … That this is some scam to keep most of the people of African descent out of the tribe.

(A resonant note plays out of a bass clarinet, woody and looped and scratchy, as if recorded on a record with a silent skip.)

Hunte: Marilyn is a descendant of a group of people known as the Cherokee Freedmen: Black people who were enslaved by the Cherokee tribe and freed after the Civil War. But that wasn’t the end of their struggle. It continued in courts for decades and is still a source of tension within the tribe.

(A beat with no words, only music. Birds start to twitter over the song.)

Longoria: This week, correspondent Tracie Hunte brings us a complicated story about who gets to belong—how people like Marilyn Vann and her ancestors have fought since the Civil War to belong to the Cherokee Nation, while, at the same time, the Cherokee Nation was struggling to survive an existential threat in a larger nation.

This is The Experiment. A show about our unfinished country.

(The music ends.)

Longoria: So Marilyn Vann suspects that there’s some kind of scam going on. What does she decide to do next?

Hunte: Well, the first thing she does is start to educate herself—

Vann: I started researching: pulling some cases and things that you couldn't even get on the internet …

Hunte: —to figure out exactly how her family got into this situation in the first place.

Vann: You know, everybody knew in this country that whites had enslaved persons of African ancestry—

Hunte: Mhm.

Vann: —especially in the Deep South. But tribes owning a hundred or two or three hundred slaves? That wasn’t that well known.

Hunte: Marilyn learned that some Cherokee enslaved Africans. It was a small minority of the tribe, but it’s estimated they enslaved about 4,000 African people.

Hunte: What was it like for you, finding out for the first time that this tribe that you had been a part of your whole life and that you have this history with going back generations—finding out that they used to enslave people who looked like you?

Vann: That was very …  That was disappointing. That was disappointing to, uh …

Hunte: (Lightly indignant.) Disap-? It was only disappointing?! (Laughs a little.) Like, what … (Fades under.)

Hunte: I mean, I think it was a little bit more than disappointing.

Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.: I was honestly, uh … [Inhales sharply.] stunned.

Hunte: Turns out, this part of Cherokee Nation history was not widely talked about even within the nation itself.

Hoskin: I’m Chuck Hoskin Jr. I’m principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

I can tell you, growing up, I did not know about the Cherokee Nation’s—not only the enslavement of African Americans, but that it was a matter of Cherokee law that [Mumbling a little.] we could enslave African Americans.

Hunte: I called the chief to try to understand how this happened.

Hoskin: We are both, uh, a—a people have been oppressed and exploited, and the truth is, at times in our history, we have oppressed and exploited. Those two things happen on the same plane, and I think that often, uh, doesn’t make initial sense to people when they hear it, but it takes a deeper dive into history to understand some context in which these things are happening.

(Strings hum under an orbiting electronic satellite of sound. It’s heavy.)

Hoskin: And I think that what was happening in the early 19th century in particular was the encroachment of white settlers around us in places like the state of Georgia, advancing on our lands and our resources.

Hunte: In the early 1800s, the U.S. government continued to attack Native people and seize their lands. It was also around this time that Thomas Jefferson and other influential plantation owners gave all the tribes in the region what was called “the civilization policy”: a sort of “checklist” to the tribes for how to survive in this new American project. All they needed to do was learn English, convert to Christianity, adopt white gender norms—like, the men farm and the women stay at home.

And the people who were touting this policy were a lot like Jefferson—wealthy Southern plantation owners who owned a lot of slaves. The implication? To have power, you have to have slaves too.

(The music slowly fades away.)

Alaina Roberts: As the United States is becoming a country, they are creating a national culture, and slavery becomes an increasingly important part of that.

Hunte: Alaina Roberts teaches history at the University of Pittsburgh. She explained to me that several tribes enslaved African people.

Roberts: So things like slaveholding are important to not just the accumulation of wealth, but also being a small, independent farmer. There were Native Americans with huge plantations, and there are people, you know, doing the cotton planting and picking, planting and picking corn.

Hunte: The Cherokee’s decision to embrace this new “civilized” future was also tactical—a form of self-preservation. Remember, this was a time of incredible violence against Native people. They lived under constant threat. And so some tribes thought that the economic power slaves afforded them might make white Americans into allies.

Hoskin: That certainly was something that, uh, was a product of white settlers and the pressures that were brought to bear, both economic and political. But it also is not, in my view, to be used as an excuse.

(With a slow slur up to a new chord, the music dissolves into the atmosphere.)

Hunte: This choice that some Cherokee made to own slaves to keep themselves free  was something that I struggled with a lot. And so I reached out to this Cherokee historian named Julie Reed.

Julie Reed: I’m an Associate Professor of History at Penn State University and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Hunte: And she shared this quote with me that describes where the Cherokee were at during this period.

Reed: “Cherokees changed so that they could stay the same.” Like, what are the things we’re willing to do in order to protect the core parts of who we are? And some Cherokees are making certain kinds of calculations, like, “Well, we're willing to adopt plantation slavery in order to maintain other parts of our sovereignty, maintain other parts of our familial structures, maintain other parts of our society.”

Hunte: Marilyn Vann.

Vann: There’s power that can be gotten through discrimination—making the other guy the bad guy.

Hunte: And with those compromises, slave-owning Cherokee were promised access to power.

Reed: When you’re coming to negotiating tables for treaties or you’re trying to articulate who you are, politically or governmentally, to these other bodies that by the—you know—early 19th century, Cherokees are putting many of these folks forward as spokespeople for the community.

(Light music plays under Hunte’s narration.)

Hunte: But all these attempts to secure sovereignty by owning land, people, and assimilating into white culture—ultimately, none of it worked.

Starting in 1838, the U.S. government forced the Cherokee to march 1,200 miles—from their lands in the southeast United States to designated Indian Territory—what is now Oklahoma. This journey became known as the Trail of Tears. Along the way, thousands died of disease and starvation.

And alongside them on this journey? Enslaved Black people.

Again, Professor Alaina Roberts:

Roberts: There is actually an influx of enslaved people on the Trail of Tears because a number of Native people purchase enslaved people basically as movable capital. So if you can’t move all of your possessions, well, why not just purchase someone who can walk, you know?

Hunte: Wow.

Roberts: And if you can imagine how bad Indian removal is—you know, being ripped from your home, having soldiers and other people constantly rustling you out of bed and telling you, “Okay, come on, let’s go,” walking through the dead of winter, walking through the dead of summer—it’s even worse for enslaved people, because they are there, of course, to make the lives of their enslavers better and easier.

And so, they’re the people hauling firewood, chopping firewood. They’re the people walking so their owners can ride on their horses. They’re the people acting, essentially, as pack mules.

Vann: When they make documentaries about the Trails of Tears, they don’t want to show people of African descent being beaten.

Hunte: Mhm.

Vann: Or in a cotton field.

Hunte: Again, Marilyn Vann.

Vann: They don’t want to talk about history.

Hunte: Once the Cherokee arrived in Indian Territory, those slaves were immediately put to work rebuilding the nation.

(A beat as the music solemnly fades out.)

Hunte: Decades later, the Cherokee are still reeling from the trauma of removal, and they’re deeply divided among themselves. Then, in 1861, the Civil War breaks out. Fearing even more violence and division, the chief at the time tries not to pick a side.

Reed: His position was, he wanted to stay out of this. He did not see this as a war that involved Cherokee people—this was between people in the U.S., not Native people.

Hunte: That didn’t last long. Some slave-owning Cherokee split off and joined the South anyway. Other slave-owning tribes did too. Pretty soon, the Cherokee were surrounded, with the Union nowhere in sight. They had to pick a side or be destroyed. So they joined the Confederacy.

And when the war was over and they lost, the Cherokee and the U.S. signed a treaty: the Treaty of 1866.

Hunte: What did the Treaty of 1866 say?

Hoskin: The Treaty of 1866 said a number of things.

Hunte: Chief Hoskin again.

Hoskin: Not the least of which was allowing railroads to come into our lands, which brought in white settlers. But all of those things, I think, left a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of Cherokee people. That taste is still there for many—that we’re a sovereign Indian nation, and the Treaty of 1866 was more of an imposition than a negotiation.

A relatively short time later, the State of Oklahoma is imposed over the Cherokee Nation. Our government is suppressed to the point where we have no functioning democracy. We have chiefs that are appointed by the president of the United States through most of the 20th century. My grandfather, who lived most of his life in the 20th century, most of his life never got to vote for a chief—let alone ever imagine his grandson would be the chief.  

Hunte: Mhm.

Hoskin: And so you have a civil society that is eroded almost to nothing.

Hunte: So, yeah. The Treaty of 1866 is loaded for many Cherokee. But that treaty also made Cherokees do something else.

Hoskin: One of the things it said we wouldn’t do is ever enslave people again. Another thing it said we would do is that we would—and this is an exact quote, and I have it memorized at this point from the Treaty of 1866—is that we will “give Freedmen and their descendants all the rights of native Cherokees.”

(Funky music plays, light and airy and dreamy.)

Hoskin: It didn’t say some of the rights. Um, it didn’t say just freedmen. It said freedmen and their descendants.

Hunte: Years after the Treaty of 1866, the U.S. government continued to control Native tribes through their land and their culture.

For example: Native people owned their land communally. But soon, the U.S. passed a series of laws that required them to own it individually. To do that, they had to register themselves with the U.S. government. This register was called the Dawes Rolls. It was a census taken around the early 1900s of everyone in Indian Territory.

Hoskin: The precise manner in which someone today becomes a citizen of the Cherokee Nation is the same, irrespective of who you are. To apply for citizenship, you must trace directly to that group on the Dawes Rolls.

Vann: My father, he had been listed as a freedman—

Hunte: Mhm.

Vann: —on the Dawes Rolls. I had gotten the roll number from another relative in the family.

Hunte: Mhm.

Vann: Uh, one of the oldest members of my family.

Hunte: Based on the treaty, it seemed like Marilyn should have no problem becoming a citizen.

Vann: The tribe treatied away their right to discriminate against the freedmen.  

Hunte: So looking back at that rejection letter from 2001 …

Vann: It said something about [Assuming a bureaucratic voice.] “There wasn’t a degree of Indian blood by this roll number.”

Hunte: Hmm.

Vann: And I said, “Well, what is—what are they talking about? [The stuffy voice again.] ‘There’s no degree of blood’ …”

(A pause in the music.)

Hunte: The thing is, the Dawes Rolls didn’t just account for and classify everyone in the Cherokee Nation. It also introduced the idea that having a certain amount of Native blood was what determined your membership in a tribe. Up until this point, this wasn’t something the Cherokee really ascribed to. But as white census workers listed individuals on the Dawes Rolls, they also estimated how much “Indian blood” each person had, down to the fraction. Since Marilyn’s father was listed as a freedman and not a “Cherokee by blood,” he didn’t have a blood quantum next to his name.

Still, this didn’t make sense to Marilyn, because it seemed like, according to the Treaty of 1866, whether you’re a descendant of freedpeople or “by blood” Cherokees, it shouldn’t matter. You're still eligible for citizenship.

And she put a question about that to the court.

(The airy music returns, punctuated by a shaken percussion, shuddering like a rainstick.)

Vann: Now, this was after I had already, you know, started doing this legal research and had read the treaty and things.

Hunte: In 2003, she sued the U.S. government, asking them to force the Cherokee Nation to uphold the 1866 Treaty and let freedmen like her be Cherokee citizens.

But Marilyn wasn’t the only one taking on the tribe. That story, after the break.

(The music fades out into the break.)

(A hum, a distant call as if from a bird, echoes into a vast and far-away space, then Hunte resumes the episode.)

Hunte: This is The Experiment. I’m Tracie Hunte. And we’re back with the story of the Cherokee Freedmen fighting for citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.

I mentioned before that the Cherokee weren’t the only tribe to enslave African people—four others did as well. Professor Alaina Roberts is descended from Choctaw and Chickasaw Freedpeople.

Hunte: What is it about becoming full citizens of the tribe that you think is so important to freedmen or the descendants of freedmen? What is it that they ultimately want?

Roberts: It is a sense of justice. Like, “I am owed this because my ancestors went through this.” Some, it’s “This is, like, literally something, legally, that you are supposed to be abiding by.” And for others, it is really, like, kind of the personal identity angle, which is—you know, I mean, if your parents have talked to you about this, and your grandparents, and your great-grandparents, and you have this cultural retention and your ancestors spoke that language, and that’s your birthright, then it’s important to you to be able to properly, legally claim that.

Vann: The freedmen are not asking for reparations for the discrimination against their ancestors. We’re asking for our basic rights to be treated the same as other members of the tribe. So why is it that the tribes should say, “The federal government has its obligations to us, but we have no obligations to the freedmen”?

Hunte: Marilyn Vann filed her case in the U.S. federal courts in 2003. And she waited.

Vann: This was all very long and difficult.

Hunte: In the meantime, she was reaching out to people in the community to talk about it.

David Cornsilk: And then I got a call from Marilyn Vann.

Hunte: And she called David Cornsilk.

Cornsilk: I’m David Cornsilk. I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a genealogist—kind of historian—for the Cherokee people.

Hunte: David is not a freedman. But by this point, David had a reputation among freedpeople as an ally.

Cornsilk: And Marilyn Vann said, “I want to pick your brain, and find out what you think we need to do to continue this fight.” And she said, “Well, I’d like for you to come to my freedman meeting,” and I didn’t know she’d been having reedman meetings.

Hunte: Mhm.

Cornsilk: And she asked me if I would speak.

Hunte: And so David spoke at the meeting and told his story. Back in the early ’80s, David didn't know much about freedpeople.

Cornsilk: I knew that our tribe had owned slaves, but I did not know, uh, how they fit in in the modern picture.

(Lush synthesized arpeggios cascade down in an empty space—a dreamscape of sound.)

Hunte: But all that changed for him in 1983. The Cherokee Nation introduced a new rule. In order to vote, everyone in the tribe had to be Cherokee by blood.

When David went to vote, he found himself standing in line behind an elderly man—the Reverend Roger H. Nero. He was a freedman who was a small child when he was added to the Dawes Rolls.

Cornsilk: It was very hot, and we’re standing in line outside, and there’s not any shade. And so we’re both sweating. And so we started the conversation with each other.

And you know, here was a—a gentleman who was on the Dawes Rolls. And I inquired of his ancestry and talked about his family and—and then we got up to the table, and when he presented his voting card, the lady behind the table snatched it out of his hand and looked at it with this derisive look on her face and then looked him in the face and said, “We don’t let you people vote anymore.”

And she wouldn’t give him back his card.

Hunte: Mmm.

Cornsilk: And so he—he was very confused, and he said, “Well, I’m on the Dawes Rolls. I’m a—a member of the nation.” And she said, “Not anymore.”

Hunte: The Reverend Nero was one of the first freedmen to sue the tribe in federal court in 1984—but the suit was dismissed.

Around that time, David started working at the Cherokee Nation enrollment office.

Cornsilk: A part of my job was to inform freedmen applicants that they were not eligible.

Hunte: Mmm.

Cornsilk: And so, you know, I—I took my job seriously, and when freedmen would come in and turn in their applications, they would call me and they’d say, “David, come to the front, you've got a freedman up here you need to let down easy.” And so I would come out there, and I would gently explain to them, you know, what tribal law was, and there was … (Fades under.)

Hunte: But he kept feeling worse and worse about the law. He says he even wrote a letter to the chief at the time.

Ultimately, he decided to quit his job.

And he started doing his own research. He wanted to support the descendants of freedpeople more directly.

He helped another descendant bring her case to tribal court back in the ’90s. They lost. But at Marilyn’s meeting, he told the people there that he was still passionate about their cause.

Cornsilk: And then, whenever it was all done, I went back to my chair and sat and listened to the rest of the meeting. And then it was over.

Hunte: Mhm.

Cornsilk: And before I could get out the door, this elderly Black woman came up to me and she said, “My name is Lucy Allen. I’m a freedman descendant, and I would like to challenge the Cherokee Nation.”

(The plodding music plays again. This time, the music signals an upcoming adventure, and it feels lighter. Gentle electronic notes shimmer as a light percussion bounces up and down.)

Hunte: Mhm.

Cornsilk: “And I can’t get an attorney to take me seriously.” And she said, “Well, would you represent me?” And I said, “Sure!”

Hunte: David’s not a trained lawyer, but you didn’t need to be one to argue a case in tribal court. And he had been studying the issue for years and he felt he was ready to take on the Cherokee Nation—his nation.

Hunte: What was the reaction from other Cherokees?

Cornsilk: Well, it varied. You know, some of them were, uh, “I can't believe you want those people in the tribe.”

Hunte: Mhm.

Cornsilk: You know? There—there was a lot of prejudice. It was a lot of bigotry and a lot of ignorance.

Hunte: At this point, there were two cases going on simultaneously: Marilyn’s case in federal court, and Lucy Allen’s in the tribal courts. Both were making their way slowly through two different legal systems.

(The music fades out.)

Stacy Leeds: You know, Cherokee Nation is so diverse that there’s about eight viewpoints on this.

Hunte: This is Stacy Leeds, a Cherokee citizen who served on the Cherokee tribal court. She was one of the judges who decided the Lucy Allen case.

Leeds: But that lawsuit, the question was “Does the current Cherokee Nation constitution—does it exclude the freedmen or not?”

Hunte: Can you walk me through the different sides of the argument?

Leeds: We tracked, like, over time—There’s no rational debate that the Cherokee Freedmen were not, at one time, citizens. Right? What happened that stopped that?

Hunte: Mhm.

Leeds: Well, what happened that stopped it was a law got passed, and that’s where the disenfranchisement occurred.

The case was “Look at the document of the constitution. Does it exclude this class of citizens or not?” And the ruling was “No.”

Hunte: The tribal court ruled that all Cherokee Freedmen and their descendants must be full citizens.

The day the verdict came down, David wasn’t at the court. When he wasn’t advocating for Cherokees in tribal court, David worked at PetSmart.

(Scintillating notes play to animate the magic of the story to come.)

Cornsilk: I'm out on the floor, helping customers with their dogs and cats and lizards and what have you. [Hunte laughs.] And suddenly over the loudspeaker, it says, “David Cornsilk to the front office.” And so I thought, Oh goodness, what have I done? (Hunte laughs again.)

Hunte: When he gets to the office, the fax machine is just spitting out reams of paper, and the other managers start handing him pages.

Cornsilk: And the store director looks up at me and said, “Are you a lawyer?” [Laughs.] I said, “No.” [Hunte laughs.]

And he said, “You just won a big lawsuit!” And … [Cornsilk stops, becoming emotional.] Sorry! I lost it! I said, “I—I can’t stay here today.” [Both laugh.] “Can I—can I go home?” And I wanted to see my parents and see my kids.

(The music dissipates.)

Hunte: It was a 2–1 decision, with Judge Stacy Leeds writing the majority opinion. For the first time in more than 20 years, freedmen were once again granted citizenship.

Hunte: When you made that decision, did you kind of think, Okay, we’re done talking about this?

Leeds: No. I mean, I … You—you have to know how explosive that type of decision is going to be in the community.

Hunte: Mhm. Yeah.

Leeds: So I think the judges were well aware that it was not going to be well received [Chuckles.] by a number of people.

Hunte: That’s putting it lightly.

Hoskin: That created some backlash in the form of a ballot question in 2007.

Hunte: Chief Chuck Hoskin again. He wasn’t the chief at the time. Just one year after the ruling, tribal leaders put the question of citizenship for freedpeople to a vote. The chief at the time said, “Let’s not leave this question to the courts. We should decide this democratically, as a nation.”

Hoskin: The question was “Should you have Indian blood to be a member of an Indian tribe, or should you not?” I think, for many Cherokees, quite naturally many of them felt like, “Of course you should!”

Hunte: The tribe voted—overwhelmingly—yes, and once again, Cherokee Freedpeople were excluded from citizenship. But Chief Hoskins says there was a problem with that vote.

He says most Cherokees weren’t educated about their tribe’s history of enslaving Black people, or the promise they’d made to the descendants of those people in 1866.

Hoskin: Now, I’ve acknowledged that for most of my young life—only ’til I was in my late teens—did I really know nothing about the freedmen, and I only did because my father was a government official.

Hunte: Do you know how much of that was just based in racism? Or was it just, like, out of a desire to preserve this Cherokee ethnic identity?

Hoskin: Some people reacted to it, “Of course we have to hold ourselves together as Indians. We’ve been Indians from time immemorial. Our ancestors suffered mightily. We’re against the odds that we’re even here. And so if we’re going to hold on to what it means to be Cherokee, of course you have to have Indian blood.”

Now, Cherokee Nation is a large tribe, and so there are Cherokees who—just like the larger society—that do not like Black people. And—and there—and there is some racism. I think it’s a minority of Cherokees, but they exist. And so some people heard that as a bit of a dog whistle that these descendants of slaves are going to infiltrate the tribe.

(Claps echo in a resonant space. Strings play, then the drip-drip-drip of water appears—or is it the scratching of a record on a turntable?)

Hunte: Sometimes that anti-freedmen sentiment is connected to resources. There’s talk that some freedmen don’t actually want to be Cherokees—they just want free services.

That sounds an awful lot like what some white people say about Black people: that we’re lazy, we don’t want to work. We just want to get free stuff. And I kinda felt the specter of that global anti-Black racism when I learned this.

(The music fades out.)

Hunte: After the ballot referendum, freedmen descendants were once again excluded from the tribe.

Vann: I knew that it was going to take the involvement of the federal government.

Hunte: But Marilyn’s lawsuit in federal court was still going on.

(Heavy, breathy, sluggish music plays.)

Hunte: Her legal team argued that the Cherokee Nation having a law excluding the descendants of freedmen from citizenship violated the 1866 treaty and, therefore, the federal government had to put an end to it.

But the Cherokee Nation argued that the wording of the treaty wasn’t actually clear-cut: It didn’t explicitly say freedmen had the right to citizenship.

The federal court didn’t agree. It ruled in favor of the freedpeople. Marilyn won.

The Cherokee Nation didn’t appeal the decision, which meant they effectively accepted the ruling. So, in August 2017, descendants of freedpeople were able to become citizens. The legal battle was over.

(The music ends.)

Hoskin: My view is that it was a treaty.

Hunte: Again, this is Chief Hoskin.

Hoskin: As chief of the Cherokee Nation today, I go to Washington, D.C., from time to time and I press for our treaty rights. And when I press for a treaty right, I am telling the United States that if it’s a great nation, it ought to keep its promise. It ought to be a nation of its word. And if I’m to do that effectively, I have to do so as—as chief of the nation that’s keeping its word.

Hunte: But in some ways the issue of citizenship for the descendants of Cherokee Freedpeople still doesn’t feel settled.

In 2021, Marilyn Vann ran for office on the tribal council. But there was still a provision in the Cherokee constitution that said you had to be a “by blood member” to hold that office. The tribal court weighed in. It decided that language should be removed in response to the ruling by the U.S. federal government. This upset some Cherokee, who felt the move was undemocratic. One of those people, surprisingly, was freedmen advocate David Cornsilk.

Cornsilk: We have, in the constitution, a language that limits the rights of people, and that language is offensive to our treaty, to federal law, but the only way it can be taken out is by following the recipe in the constitution itself. And that recipe says the Cherokee people shall vote.

Hunte: And David maintains that part of being a sovereign nation means messing up—making bad decisions that may harm you in the end. But even still, it’s important that people recognize that sovereignty and respect it.

Cornsilk: And so if we choose to leave that language in there and it offends the federal court and the federal court says, “You either take it out or you’re going to be sanctioned,” and they still vote to keep it in there because they’re a bunch of dumbass racists, then they suffer the consequences. And we get what we get.

Hunte: I think it’s always tricky when you set up a situation where people get to vote on other people’s rights, you know?

Cornsilk: I have faith in the Cherokee people that—uh, given the right information—

Hunte: Uh-huh.

Cornsilk: —that they will come to the right conclusion.

Hunte: Yeah.

Cornsilk: Because I see it all the time, you know, in—in my dealing with Cherokee people and, you know, talking about these issues and what all needs and should be done. And, you know, I see people have that epiphany, that moment of understanding.

But it—but it’s a process. And it takes hard work and it takes, you know, your ability to argue away, uh, this very powerful sense of identity that has been ingrained in us since 1906 that being Cherokee means being Indian.

Hunte: Mhm.

Cornsilk: And—and that is hard to overcome.

(Slow electric guitar drawls out of the quiet.)

Hunte: The irony of the federal government calling out the Cherokee Nation for not doing right by its Black citizens isn’t lost on me. More than 150 years after emancipation, many U.S. politicians still laugh off reparations for slavery as unreasonable …

Senator Mitch McConnell: No one currently alive was responsible for that.

Hunte: A pipe dream …

McConnell: And I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it.

Hunte: A good idea, maybe a hundred years ago …

Senator Tim Scott: But if this was 1920, we could actually have a conversation.

Hunte: But now it’s too late.

Scott: What we should be talking about is progress.

Hunte: But it’s the United States that created this absurd racial hierarchy, colonized native lands, imported African people to build this country, and incited campaigns of terror on both Black people and Native people alike.

These are the conditions under which the Cherokee were operating. I’m not saying this to excuse the terrible things they did. I’m just saying that the Cherokee isn’t the only nation that needs to confront its past.

(A beat of music.)

Hunte: Marilyn Vann now has a seat on the Cherokee Nation’s Environmental Protection Commission. She’s the first freedman descendant confirmed to a Cherokee government position.

Hunte: You know, the Cherokee Nation, throughout its history, has enslaved Black people, fought with the Confederacy, conspired to keep Black people from, you know, becoming full citizens of the nation. Like, why was it so important to you to be a part of this group that kept trying to force you out?

Vann: How is this different from Thurgood Marshall?

Hunte: Mhm.

Vann: Or Honorable Reverend Dr. King?

Hunte: Mhm.

Vann: Reverend Shuttlesworth, Reverend Abernathy, and their wives fighting for civil rights? Did they say, “Oh, these white people don't want us to go to the library, even though we’re citizens and we pay taxes here. We’re going to go to Africa because these white—because, you know, [Stammering for a moment.] we just don’t want to hurt these white people’s feelings.”

Hunte: Not hurt their feelings, but just say, “Well, screw them! I don’t want to be a part of your tribe anyway.”

Vann: Well, no, we don’t do that! No, you don’t do that.

Injustice wants unjust people. They want you to accept being an inferior. They want you to accept being a slave. No, that is not what God wants. God does not want people to accept injustice.

(The lackadaisical guitar line hoists itself back up into the clear for a moment, then slinks back under as the credits roll.)

Michael May: This episode of The Experiment was produced by Tracie Hunte, with help from Gabrielle Berbey. Editing by Jenny Lawton and Julia Longoria. Fact-check by Will Gordon. Sound design by Joe Plourde with additional engineering by Jen Munson.

Special thanks to Professor Gregory Smithers, Rebecca Nagle, Sterling Cosper, and Bryan Pollard.

Music by Tasty Morsels, Alex Overington, and Joe Plourde.

Our team also includes Salman Ahad Khan, Peter Bresnan, Sarah Qari, Alyssa Edes, Emily Botein, Natalia Ramirez, and me, Michael May.

If you enjoyed today’s episode, please take the time to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.

The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.

(As the credits end, the music—like a cloud—slides further and further away.)

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