TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — It was during a time of loss and heartbreak that Melissa Payne realized her calling.
That calling? To follow the footsteps of her mother, Rodslen Brown, and be the most dedicated activist, voice and champion of the Cherokee Freedmen that she could be.
“My mother was a bright light in this world who fought much of her life for the equality and inclusion of the Cherokee Freedmen,” Payne said of Brown, who died at age 59 in 2020. “In her final days, she expressed to me that she wanted me to continue her efforts. Those words have stuck with me ever since, and I’ve made it my mission to be the same caliber of ambassador for the Cherokee Freedmen that she proved to be.”
Flash forward to today and Payne has the same title and duties formerly held by her mother. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Deputy Chief Bryan Warner appointed Payne as a community advisor for the Cherokee Nation in 2022, giving her the opportunity to meet with Cherokee Nation administrators on a regular basis to serve as a line of communication between the Cherokee Freedmen and tribal leaders.
“Melissa has proven to be an exceptional fit for us as a friend, ally and advocate. We are communicating more and being more active with the Freedmen community than ever before,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “We are a better and more just Nation when we honor and respect the rights stipulated in our treaty agreement, and that includes citizenship and all that it entails to the eligible Freedmen community members. Cherokee Nation can be stronger if we move forward as citizens together and on an equal basis.”
Payne said her main objective as community advisor is to ensure the equality of not just the Cherokee Nation Freedmen, but all tribal citizens. She also operates as a primary contact in the community for individuals who seek to learn more about Cherokee Nation programs, projects, resources and more.
“I realize now more than ever that becoming a community advisor was a great thing for me to do,” Payne said. “Immediately after I took that position, people were approaching me and asking for assistance, asking for direction. There are so many things that people in the community do not know. Many don’t even know where to start and don’t know how many programs the Cherokee Nation has. I’ve always been a voice and advocate for those people throughout my life, and it was a beautiful thing to take that to the next step.”
In her role as a Community Liaison, Payne not only works to support engagement with Freedmen communities, but also to ensure compliance with Chief Hoskin’s historic Executive Order on Equality. That 2020 order prohibits discrimination and requires government departments to increase their outreach to historically disenfranchised communities.
Payne works as part of a community liaison team under the Hoskin administration’s Senior Advisor for Community Egagement, Canaan Duncan.
Payne, born and raised in Fort Gibson before her family moved to Muskogee when she was a teenager, has been heavily involved with the Project A Association, a nonprofit organization founded by her mother in partnership with the Oklahoma Health Care Authority in 2000.
Project A, an acronym standing for Potential, Realization, Opportunity, Job, Education, Creativity, Teaching and Artistic, regularly partners with Cherokee Nation in efforts to make positive impacts on the lives of the youth in Cherokee and Muskogee County. The association was created to help young people become constructive thinkers, idealists and leaders of the future.
Payne also worked with a team on Rose Cottage near Ross Cemetery in Park Hill, Okla., to search for unmarked slave burial sites on former plantation land. The project required special equipment that was brought in from multiple states to detect the underground burial sites.
Cherokee Nation collaborated with Payne within the past year to create the “We Are Cherokee: Cherokee Freedmen and the Right to Citizenship” exhibit at the Cherokee National History Museum. The launch reception for the exhibit, held in September of 2022, took place during the 70th annual Cherokee National Holiday following the tribe’s State of the Nation address.
The exhibit was created as part of the Cherokee Freedmen Art and History Project with the purpose of broadening Cherokee Nation’s understanding of the Cherokee Freedmen experience through the Freedmen perspective.
That perspective is shared from the earliest known participation of chattel slavery in the 18th century and through various historical milestones in the decades that followed, including the adoption of plantation-style slavery among Cherokees, Indian Removal to the West and the American Civil War. It also shares how the Treaty of 1866 granted freed slaves in Cherokee Nation the same rights as native Cherokees.
The exhibit reveals the steps taken by the tribe to strip Freedmen and their descendants of tribal citizenship and examines the 2017 U.S. District Court ruling that upheld the Treaty of 1866 and reaffirmed the Cherokee Freedmen as citizens of the Cherokee Nation.
“The ultimate goal for me as the community advisor is equality. And not only equality, but embracement from both parties, the Freedmen citizens and native Cherokee citizens,” Payne said. “I would love for more involvement and inclusion, because we’re all family. The inclusion, acceptance and growth of the Cherokee Freedmen will only create a better and stronger Cherokee Nation.”
More information about the Cherokee National History Museum can be found at https://visitcherokeenation.com/attractions/cherokee-national-history-museum.