Four days after a historic court ruling for the Cherokee Nation, a 65-year-old black woman arrived at the Martin Luther King Community Center in the town of Muskogee, Oklahoma, with questions about how to become a tribal citizen. Walking on shiny linoleum beneath bright florescent lights, she stopped at a table draped in a thin sheet of purple plastic. Neatly stacked on top were rows of application forms—one for Cherokee citizenship and another for voter registration cards.
Her oral history was similar to the spoken record of other black families in Oklahoma.
She was among 300 or so others who had turned up over the Labor Day weekend to honor the area’s bygone generation of black business owners—local entrepreneurs who once prospered until they lost their businesses to big box chains. Now she was scanning the paperwork to pay tribute to her past in a different way, in the way she’s always wanted: by claiming her place in the Cherokee Nation.
The family story Perline Boyattia grew up with said her ancestors were Cherokee Indians. Her oral history was similar to the spoken record of other black families in Oklahoma, a confirmation of how pervasively chattel slavery spread—even among some of the country’s earliest colonized tribes, like the Cherokee.
As the nation dissects these past injustices—in the aftermath of bigoted hate-fueled violence and death in communities like Charlottesville, Virginia—and as Americans are demanding dismantling of Confederate monuments and a revision of history to include fairly all sides of the slave narrative, Boyattia’s family experience then represents a truth that has its own unique place in that history.
Her kin, she believes, were among an estimated 2,500 Cherokee-owned slaves that were granted tribal citizenship at the end of the Civil War. Nearly two centuries later, as more about this little-known chapter of the past has come to light, Boyattia has a renewed sense of belonging among the Cherokee.
A U.S. District court ruled in favor of the Cherokee Freedmen, today’s descendants of Cherokee-owned slaves.
And she’s not alone. On Aug. 30, a U.S. District court ruled in favor of the Cherokee Freedmen, today’s descendants of Cherokee-owned slaves who over the years have argued that a historic treaty secures their inclusion in the Cherokee Nation. But since 2006, only a small percentage of an estimated 40,000 mostly African Americans believed to be eligible for tribal citizenship—around 2,800 people—have been able to claim this rightful title due to persistent pushback from the tribe.
As early as 1883, 17 years after the signing of the 1866 treaty, tribal leaders and citizens began working to abate the “Native Rights” given to the Freedmen. A long-held argument was one that hinged on “Cherokee by blood” policies meant to exclude the Freedmen, mostly whenever proceeds from sold tribal lands were to be shared. In more modern times, those antiquated blood politics were revived in a multimillion-dollar campaign to exclude the slave descendants starting in 2007. As a sovereign tribal nation, the Cherokee argued that it has the right to determine its own citizenship, even if it meant the exclusion of the Freedmen.
Now, with the Freedmen fully restored as members of the tribe, they are also eligible to hold elected positions and to receive government services linked to health care, housing, education, and jobs.
With the Freedmen fully restored as members of the tribe, they are also eligible to hold elected positions.
Boyattia has raised two children and is now a widow to a war veteran. She molded a career in human resources, as well. But she said she has always felt a lingering sense that something was missing. “As an African American in this country, you really don’t think you have an identity beyond slavery, because we ourselves are a melting pot—of Irish, of Caucasian, of African, of Native American. We’re everything in our blood,” Boyattia said.
Now, with a historic court decision affirming her sense of belonging, she feels validated. “It has brought on a sense of wholeness and wellness to some of us that weren’t ever thought of being a member of the Cherokee Nation,” Boyattia said.
For slave descendants like Boyattia, however, acknowledgement from the courts and the tribe are just the first steps toward Cherokee citizenship. The forms she’d fill out at the Martin Luther King Community Center gave indicators for all the genealogical road-mapping she still needs to do. “I have been researching the wrong side of the family until last year,” she said.
At the table with the paperwork, she filled in the blanks with information that she knew. Standing in line around her were people with similar questions about how best to track their family lineage to synch with the tribe’s.
Confirming “grandma’s story”
Boyattia said her grandmother often spoke of her Cherokee ancestry and the curious government census known as the Dawes Rolls. The late 19th-century poll was how federal Indian agents assessed the breakup and parceling of tribal lands, then known as Indian Territory. For the Cherokee, it included a racially skewed calculus of its ethnic population. Former slaves and their descendants were listed under the category “Freedmen.”
For slave descendants, acknowledgement from the courts and the tribe are just the first steps.
“My grandmother called it then ‘the Negro Freedmen Roll,’” Boyattia said. “But she was Cherokee,” she insisted. The distinction between former slaves and former slaves with Cherokee lineage was a detail central to languishing identity politics that have long-existed among the Cherokee. In the past decade, a steady campaign to test the inclusion of the Freedmen simplified the categorization, calling these descendants black tribal citizens rather than progeny of past interracial Cherokee relations.
“It was just something you didn’t talk about, your past heritage,” Boyattia said.
Boyattia’s childhood in Muskogee came with an awareness of the times. She recalled signs that declared segregation of bathrooms, lunch counters, banks, and water fountains. A 1969 graduate of the all-black Manual High School, she said she was raised knowing her place. “The only time we went to the east side of town or the southeast side of town was to play football games or go to the Muskogee County Fair,” Boyattia said, referring to the all-white districts in town.
Over the years, Boyattia would lose her grandmother and great aunties and uncles, then her mother and father. Before too long, the family oral history became her responsibility to preserve. Even her siblings were relying on her to perform the genealogical gymnastics required to corroborate their grandma’s story to fit with the historic record of the tribe.
In the search for documentation, her one clue was a man by the name of Mack McLaine, perhaps a misspelling of McClain. She has her work cut out for her.
“We hadn’t been accepted before, and now we are.”
Boyattia realized that she was researching the wrong side of her family tree. “I should have been looking at my grandmother’s father,” she said. Instead, she had been exploring the life of her maternal great-great-grandmother. For Boyattia, it meant returning to the Oklahoma Historical Society and the National Archives, and even the Cherokee Nation’s Heritage Center for clues. It was another aspect of the unique backstory of the Cherokee slave narrative—solid documentation—that has mostly been missing for descendants of slaves outside of Indian Country. African Americans did not enter the census until 1870.
Boyattia was familiar with these ancestral gaps. “When somebody said you were cousins, you said … well, everybody in that day was called cousin,” she said. “You really didn’t know that you were blood-connected to them.” But with the recent court ruling, Boyattia is motivated to dig deeper.
“We hadn’t been accepted before, and now we are. And that means a lot,” she said.
“A ray of hope for this nation”
On the Sunday Boyattia and others arrived at the Martin Luther King Community Center, pastors and parishioners had turned an ordinary meeting space into a congregation for prayer. Women in large brimmed hats and men wearing neatly pressed suits prayed in a group, with hands raised to the sky. They were pleading for healing and for the fellowship of one another.
In this region of the Bible Belt, faith runs deep across racial and cultural lines. The day before, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation sent thanks to God during his annual state of the nation address. “My faith has always been in God and the Cherokee people,” Bill John Baker said. “I know that there is no obstacle that we cannot overcome together.”
“It says that we are coming together as one.”
For Boyattia, the Cherokee Nation’s acceptance of the court ruling that will restore the Cherokee Freedmen full citizenship is one she said has been answered by prayer. “It shows that God is still in control, and he can change anything and anybody,” she said.
Faith aside, Boyattia said, the ruling represents perhaps one of the greatest moments in her lifetime next to the election of a black man for president of the United States. “My hat salutes the chief for not fighting the decision,” she said. “There’s hope for America.”
Patting a single tear that had streaked down to her chin, she smiled, saying, “In light of what has happened in Charlottesville. That’s a ray of hope for this nation. It says that we are coming together as one.”
Updated September 7, 2017: Corrects reference to “east” part of town and the date “1883.”
Jenni Monet is an award-winning independent journalist and tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico who writes about Indigenous rights and injustice in the U.S. and around the world.