The Cherokee Constitution is the first primary source I have been able to find for my paper. Signed September 6th, 1839, the Cherokee Constitution was an agreement between factions of Cherokees after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The document is over 400 pages that describe the laws the nation established in the new Indian country. I found access to the document through the Library of Congress but did not know anything about the history. To gain an understanding of the history of the document, I found an article from the modern-day Cherokee Phoenix. The Cherokee newspaper dates back to the 1820s and reported the news in both English and Tsalagi, the Cherokee written language. The article described the history of the Cherokee Constitution and its significance throughout history.
The Cherokee Constitution was an agreement between two Cherokee factions, the eastern Cherokees led by Principal Chief John Ross and the Sequoyah led by Acting Principal Chief John Looney. The Cherokee Phoenix article described their convention as “a Formal Act of Union” whereby the two branches decarded to be one political body under the title of the Cherokee Nation. The document established rules for the election of legislators, chiefs, voting rights for the tribes’ male citizens and divided Cherokee land into nine districts. The legal document resembles the United States Constitution and is seen as a form of assimilation to American culture. Written documents and language were not common among indigenous people. This was just one of the many ways the Cherokee were able to adapt to prove to the United States Government they could be a civilized, sovereign Nation. The most interesting aspect of the Cherokee Constitution to me was the racist laws against African slaves. Though they were considered independent in their new Oklahoma Indian Territory, the Cherokee took their beliefs about slavery one step further than the founding fathers did. In Article III Section V the document stated:
“The descendants of Cherokee men by all free women, except the African race whose parents may have been living- together as man and wife, according- to the customs and laws of this Nation, shall be entitled to all the rights and privileges of this Nation as well as the posterity of Cherokee women by all free men. No person who is of negro or mulatto parentage, either by the father’s or mother’s side, shall be eligible to hold any office of profit, honor or trust under this government.“
Unlike the United States constitution, the Cherokee constitution explicitly stated that African slaves and freed blacks could not run for public office or vote. Ultimately, they were not considered citizens of the Nation. Individuals of African decent were the lowest minority in the Cherokee community. This document shows how the Cherokee assimilated to southern cultural ideologies. Many Cherokee fought along side the Confederacy to defend the laws and rights that were granted to them in their Constitution. It was only after the Civil War and when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified that the Cherokees amended their Constitution. Article III Section V in the Constitutions remained until it was amended after the Civil War in 1866:
“All native born Cherokees, all Indians, and whites legally members of the Nation by adoption, and all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents herein, or who may return within six months from the 19th day of July, 1866, and their descendants, who reside within the limits of the Cherokee Nation, shall be taken, and deemed to be, citizens of the Cherokee Nation.“
The Cherokees are a complex Nation because they were both oppressed and an oppressor. My goal for this semester is to explore deeper into race relationships between Cherokees and African Americans. A question I have is how did reconstruction affect Cherokee attitudes towards African Americans in their tribes?
Chavez, Will. 2014. “1839 Cherokee Constitution Born from Act of Union.” Cherokeephoenix.Org. Accessed March 7, 2021. https://www.cherokeephoenix.org/news/1839-cherokee-constitution-born-from-act-of-union/article_5621e3f8-f65c-5990-8af2-c889b21b0abc.html.
Cherokee Nation. “Constitution and Laws of the Cherokee Nation.” National Council, 1892. https://www.loc.gov/law/help/american-indian-consts/PDF/28014172.pdf.
3 Replies to “Constitution and Laws of the Cherokee Nation”
This report is timely given Deb Haaland is being considered for the Secretary of the Interior position, which impacts my work as a preservation consultant. I look forward to reading your report.
I was really surprised the kind of language used in the constitution. This is an element of the war that I’m sure a lot of us were never taught. I’m excited to see the end result of this project!
It very interesting to me that the Cherokee nation was so openly racist, one would think that for a group so often oppressed they would be more understanding and welcoming. While it seems the US government wasn’t as blatantly racist they were still very much so, they were just slightly more careful to hide it.