“Cherokee Freedmen and the Color of Belonging”

This week I wanted to explore more into the race relations between White Americans, The Cherokee, and African slaves before the Civil War. After exploring the Cherokee Constitution, I was intrigued by the harsh discrimination against those who had African heritage in the document. I wanted to explore more into race relationships and the notion of power in the Cherokee Nation. I came across an interesting article from the Colombia Journal of Race and Law by Dr. Lolita Innis. In her article “The Cherokee Freedmen and the Color of Belonging”, she explores relationships between race, power, and sovereignty in the Cherokee nation during the nineteenth century. Her article addressed the Cherokee Nation and its historic conflicts with its descendants of its former black slaves. Innis presents the relationships between the White Americans and Cherokee men and how this undermines the coherence of the Cherokee sovereignty. Her argument claims that it was African Slavery that enabled the Cherokee to become successful in gaining a political, economic, and social standing to be recognized as sovereign to the United States government. 

The article describes power as always being at the heart of sovereignty. Innis stated sovereignty is the “power to govern, the power to determine the shape of a society” in relation to territoriality and the external recognition of state power. These are central characteristics of sovereignty, however, she makes the argument that “the sovereign’s exercise of power over populations via tools such as racial categorization usually goes unnoticed” in Cherokee history (3). Race was a principal tool in the exercise of sovereign power and skin color historically has been intertwined with the shaping of tribal sovereignty in the Cherokee Nation. By framing sovereignty as a social, cultural, and intellectual development rather than a geopolitical and legal construct, Innis showed how the Cherokee’s practice of slavery and racial discrimination was more than just a color bias. Slavery was used to build a relationship with the United States and gain political and economic sovereignty before the Civil War. 

Cherokee slavery did not begin with the enslavement of Africans, the Cherokee used slavery as a tool to negotiate treaties, gain economic power, and political sovereignty. Slavery was used before the American Revolution by the Cherokee to form relationships with the British. Inness stated in the article: 

by 1776 most Cherokee traded almost exclusively in African-ancestor slaved… There are records of Cherokee trading in and holding Black slaves that date back to the eighteenth century. The Cherokee, like some other indigenous American groups, were often explicitly cast as black slave traders and slave hunters by Whites. (8)

As black slavery spread, it furthered the agrarian lifestyles that they adopted from white American culture. Similar to the white southerners, the majority of Cherokee never owned slaves but slavery was a key source of wealth and status in the nation beginning in the 1800s. This was because white social patterns became the model for many Cherokee leaders. Many aspired to own slaves an because they were an inheritable source of wealth and a means of farming larger landholdings (8). Sadly the treatment of slaves also resembled white plantation life and slaves were subject to a wide range of treatment ranging from torture and death all the way to adoption in the tribe and fictive kinship… for the most part, marked as persons of lower status (9). As the Cherokee assimilated more into a slave society, skin color became the center of citizenship and marked black skin as an outsider status. Innis also described Cherokee with “whiteness” through intermarriage, gained a political, social, and economic advantage in their society. In this argument, it is easy to see why the Cherokee sided with the Confederacy. However, it does not cover the tribes in the nation that did not side with the pro-slavery leaders and how this almost split the Cherokee into two nations before the Civil War.

The article did cover the repercussion of the Cherokee siding with the Confederacy. Innis described how all legitimacy with the United States government was lost after the war because slavery was their source of power. The article stated:

“Cherokee efforts to address their losses through political alignment with pro-slavery and Confederate forces in the decades after their removal only yielded greater losses. The Cherokee, having for the most part allied themselves with a vanquished enemy, were punished by the United States government seizure of some of their lands and the abrogation of some treaties. The land was not the only thing lost; as was true in the Confederacy and in other slaveholding parts of the country, slavery was declared at an end among the Cherokee” (15)

The Cherokee suffered greatly after the war. They lost their political, economic, and social foothold in the White world.  Hostility towards black freedmen created animosity in their society. Just like the south, the society needed to be rebuilt and race relations healed. But this was not a smooth process and the black members of the tribes fought for many years to prove their citizenship was equal to those of full blood and mixed white descent.


Inniss, Lolita Buckner. “Cherokee Freedmen and the Color of Belonging.” Columbia Journal of Race and Law 5, no. 2 (October 19, 2015): 100–118. https://doi.org/10.7916/cjrl.v5i2.2308.

3 Replies to ““Cherokee Freedmen and the Color of Belonging””

  1. Rick Kipphut

    Interesting. I would have thought that the Cherokee would have viewed blacks as kindred spirits and not as a means to an economic end. enlightening.

  2. Colin Meehan

    The topic of Cherokee collaboration with the Confederacy is an interesting one and something I’m not super familiar with. I look forward to hearing more from your project!

  3. Tommy Townsend

    That article sounds really interesting and something I might check out later. It’s interesting to see how abolition affected the Cherokee in similar ways to the Confederacy.

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