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In Tribal Constitution Change, The Cherokee Nation Addresses A History Of Enslavement


What does it mean to be a member of the Cherokee tribe? Well, it changed this week. The definition changed when the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation ruled to remove the term, by blood, from its laws. This ruling was in response to a U.S. federal government decision that determined descendants of Americans once enslaved by the tribe should also qualify as Cherokee. Those people are referred to as freedmen. Well, joining me now is Graham Lee Brewer. He's an Indigenous affairs editor at High Country News, also at KOSU in Oklahoma, and he's a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Graham Lee Brewer, welcome.

GRAHAM LEE BREWER, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: Tell us just a little bit about the history of the freedmen. Who were they? And what was their relationship to the Cherokee Nation?

BREWER: So for our tribe, they were the descendants of formerly enslaved people. Thousands of them were removed on the Trail of Tears with tribal citizens. And over time, being a part of a tribal nation gave them access to resources that were not available in other places - that is, once they were freed. And so there's a lot of descendants of freedmen who - their only access to health care is through the tribal health care system, the Cherokee Nation's health care system. And so the discussion about removing them from the citizenship status - it wasn't just a citizenship question. It was a civil rights question.

KELLY: Why has this come to the floor right now?

BREWER: Well, as you mentioned, this really came from a federal lawsuit in 2017, when a federal court ruled that the Cherokee Nation, by removing the freedmen from its citizenship, was in violation of an 1866 treaty that the Cherokee Nation entered into with the U.S. And in that treaty, it guaranteed the citizenship rights of freedmen and their descendants. And so that language that was in our Constitution and in our laws and in our policies, the term, by blood - it was still used by a small minority of Cherokee Nation citizens who wanted to still remove the freedmen from our citizenship status. And so the freedmen, until this Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruling - they couldn't hold office. They couldn't run for tribal council, and they couldn't run for chief. I would argue that that made them second-class citizens.

KELLY: What other legal implications, what other cultural implications might flow from this?

BREWER: This really makes it possible that someday, a descendant of a freedmen could be the chief of the Cherokee Nation. It would really illustrate the strength of tribal sovereignty because our citizenship laws are not based on race. They are based on community and belonging. And so it's much more than just the, quote-unquote, "amount of Indian blood that runs in your veins." It's, what community do you claim, and what community claims you?

KELLY: As a member of the Cherokee Nation yourself, how do you find yourself feeling?

BREWER: It was just such a relief to see that Supreme Court decision come down. And as someone who reads a lot of court documents for work, I would argue it was one of the most beautifully written ones I've ever read. It's just really great to finally see the tribe fully and legally embrace the freedmen. Their descendants went through some of the most horrific and just violent history that we did of genocide in this country. And I think they have every right to share in our prosperity today.

KELLY: You said this is one of the most beautifully written rulings you have ever read. Is there a line or two that stands out?

BREWER: (Reading) On war-torn soil in Indian territory during Reconstruction, thousands of miles from their respective homelands, the heartbeats of three First Nations - the Cherokees, the Shawnees and the Delawares - and three continents of flesh tones and cultures - Native Americans, African Americans and adopted or intermarried European Americans - were forced to coalesce and weave together a single nation to be known by only one name henceforth - the Cherokee Nation.

I think that's beautiful.

KELLY: Graham Lee Brewer reading from the decision this week from the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation.

Graham Lee Brewer, thank you.

BREWER: Thank you so much for having me. It's been an honor.

KELLY: He is editor for Indigenous affairs at High Country News and at KOSU in Oklahoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Graham Lee Brewer