From 'Savage' to 'Civilized' and Back Again: White-Cherokee-African Relations from 1790 until 1861

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Fred Johnson, Hope College

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Event Date



In August 2011 the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court retracted Cherokee citizenship from approximately 2,800 freedmen, the descendants of African slaves formerly owned by Cherokees, because they could not legally prove their Cherokee lineage. Although 1,200 freedmen were reinstated as citizens in September, 2011, the freedmen’s opponents within the Cherokee Nation continue to dispute the issue. In contrast to the majority of recent media publications, which tend to view this issue through a historical lens spanning from 1865 until the present, my project examines the origins of the Cherokee Nation’s enslavement of Africans from 1790 until 1861. I posit that members of the Cherokee tribe began to own African slaves in the late eighteenth century as a desperate attempt to be judged equal by white society. Even though their efforts to gain access to the exclusive rights of U.S. citizens were repeatedly thwarted by political policies, such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, slavery became an integral part of Cherokee tribal life. Additionally, just as the Cherokees became acculturated to the ways of white society, the African slaves living within the Cherokee Nation became assimilated to the Cherokee's culture. Upon becoming Cherokee citizens in 1866, the African freedmen consistently identified themselves as Cherokees and actively participated in the political and social events of the Cherokee Nation. I argue that the freedmen have proven to be loyal members of the Cherokee Nation and have earned the right to be legally recognized as Cherokee citizens.

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