Cherokees and other tribes brought slaves with them, when the federal government forced them to leave the Southeast and march to the Indian Territory that would become Oklahoma. After the tribe backed the losing side in the Civil War, the government demanded Cherokees free slaves and make them citizens of the Cherokee Nation.
The people, dubbed freedmen, embraced citizenship. They voted in tribal elections and ran for office. They served on the tribal council. They started businesses and became teachers in schools for freedmen children.
"Do you want non-Indians...using your Health Care Dollars?" warned an e-mail circulated last summer by backers of a vote on citizenship. "...getting your Cherokee Nation scholarship dollars?...making your Housing wait list longer?...being made Indians?"
Is it blood?
While some freedmen descendants surely have Indian blood, the majority probably don't, says Daniel Littlefield Jr. of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and author of a book, "The Cherokee Freedmen."
But, Littlefield says, blood should not matter.
Cherokees--who also count Shawnee and Delaware Indians and adopted whites as citizens--continued adopting blacks as citizens well after a treaty required it, making it hard to argue they were unwanted, he says. Once free to participate, there is ample evidence that black freedmen did just that.