On September 2, 2017, as our tribe’s Secretary of State, I stood on the stage at Cherokee Nation’s annual State of the Nation address. A Cherokee pastor, a full-blood elder fluent in our language, led attendees in singing “Amazing Grace.”
It was a fitting hymn for the moment, written by a 18th century slave trader who found salvation and went on to become an abolitionist.
A day earlier, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court declared what a federal judge had ruled two days before — that the Treaty of 1866 gave Freedmen and their descendants “all the rights of native Cherokees.” Both courts concluded that Cherokee Nation, a sovereign nation with the right to determine its own standards of citizenship, ceded that right by treaty as it relates to freed slaves of Cherokees and their descendants.
A product of the Reconstruction Era, the Treaty of 1866 between Cherokee Nation and the United States includes provisions on which Cherokee Nation relies today, such as our borders, our relationship with other tribes, and land use, to name a few. The Treaty of 1866 is our last treaty with the United States, and it also reaffirmed important portions of all previous treaties, including the 1835 Treaty of New Echota that provides for our delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Treaty of 1866 remains alive and well, as a federal judge affirmed. Its relevance today impacts everyone within our treaty-based reservation, because our reservation was effectively reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in last year’s McGirt case. The Treaty of 1866 is a legally binding document that ties together every agreement Cherokee Nation has ever had with the United States. Breaking the Treaty of 1866 could be our undoing.
This bears repeating: In the Treaty of 1866, we agreed to free our slaves and give them “all” the rights of native Cherokees. Not some rights. Not rights subject to a popular vote. Not rights with an expiration date. “All the rights.” Any right Cherokee Nation had to enslave human beings, or deny them or their descendants full citizenship, was disposed of by treaty 155 years ago.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once said, “Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.” The United States has broken every treaty it ever had with the Cherokee Nation. Cherokee Nation is a great nation and, at our best, we keep our word.
For much of the 155 years following the Treaty of 1866, Cherokee Nation and the Freedmen were denied their rights: Cherokee Nation at the hands of the United States and the Freedmen at the hands of the Cherokee Nation. For example, by an overwhelming margin in a 2007 constitutional referendum, Freedmen were denied any claim of citizenship in Cherokee Nation. Ultimately, after generations of effort, Cherokee Nation and the Freedmen successfully regained their rightful status under the law.
For Cherokee citizens of Freedmen descent, the fight continues beyond their legal victories in 2017. February 1, the first day of Black History Month, saw history repeat itself with another legal assault on the rights of Freedmen. For the first time in our modern history a Cherokee Nation citizen of Freedmen descent filed to run for a seat on the Council of the Cherokee Nation, only to be met with a lawsuit alleging that Freedmen lack the right of native Cherokees to run for public office. While I make no endorsement in that particular council race, I condemn the legal challenge.
The anti-Freedmen proponents of the legal challenge cling to a proposition that defies logic, is at odds with history and breaks our sacred promise. They say Freedmen can only achieve the “all rights of native Cherokees” by waging yet another political battle at the ballot box to remove anti-Freedmen language that supposedly remains in the Cherokee Nation Constitution. By their logic, Freedmen may have vindicated their treaty rights in the highest court of our nation and in federal court, but can only enjoy full citizenship by subjecting their hard-earned civil rights to another popular vote. By this logic, if the Freedmen should fail in this repeat political effort, they would then return to court, certainly win again, and then be again subjected to another round of pleading for their civil rights at the ballot box. The Treaty of 1866, which we must not break, imposes no such hurdle.
What the opponents of Freedmen rights ignore is that the issue of full Freedmen citizenship was settled long before 2021, 2017 or 2007. It was settled in 1866, by a treaty that was ratified by the Senate, signed by the President of the United States, and is the supreme law of the land. It was settled by our ancestors. Language in the Cherokee Nation Constitution to the contrary is simply void.
Cherokee Nation is a stronger nation, a greater nation, when it keeps its word. For the last three years we have grown stronger as we have embraced our brothers and sisters of Freedmen descent. We will be less of a nation, a weaker nation, if we turn back now.
The path forward is clear. The Cherokee pastor put it best back on that beautiful day in 2017:
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I'm found
Was blind, but now I see
Chuck Hoskin Jr.