Art

The Freedmen Fight for Tribal Citizenship in a New Documentary

A tipi constructed in Washington DC in the documentary 'By Blood' (all images courtesy the filmmakers)
A tipi constructed in Washington DC in the documentary ‘By Blood’ (all images courtesy the filmmakers)

OKLAHOMA CITY — “When you know what you really are and you haven’t been embraced or acknowledged, it’s horrible,” says Kenneth Payton, a descendant of the Cherokee Freedmen, in the documentary By Blood. The feature-length film unearths an overlooked plight that’s ongoing in the federal courts: the loss of citizenship of black members in the Cherokee and Seminole nations.

Initially a five-minute short, directors Marcos Barbery and Sam Russell expanded By Blood to just over an hour, and it’s currently on the festival circuit. Last weekend it screened as part of the deadCenter Film Festival in Oklahoma City, its first showing in the state where much of the story is centered.

American Indian relocation is still barely taught in American history; the fact that some of those tribes moved with their slaves is even less known. Slavery was mostly prevalent in the South among mixed blood people in the Five Civilized Tribes as they’re known: the Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Muscogee Creek . Forced assimilation focused on agriculture, and in turn that often involved slavery, particularly among the Cherokee. When the Cherokee were marched to Indian Territory — now Oklahoma — on the 1838–39 Trail of Tears, their slaves came with them, enduring the same, if not worse, hardships.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the tribes were split between supporting the Union or the Confederacy. After the Cherokee fought with the Confederates, and were defeated, they entered into the Treaty of 1866. Other tribes signed similar agreements, which boiled down to them bringing the freed and former slaves of their members into the tribe as citizens. In the Cherokee’s treaty, it was stated that these Freedmen would be afforded “all the rights of the Native Cherokee.”

Sylvia Davis in 'By Blood'
Sylvia Davis, one of the Freedmen descendants interviewed in ‘By Blood’

Now fast forward to the end of the 20th century, when Freedmen descendants have considered themselves part of these tribes for over a hundred years, and the Cherokee and Seminole nations both vote to remove their citizenship. A 2007 amendment on the Cherokee constitution stated that all nation members must have a Cherokee ancestor on the Dawes Roll; however, as part of that 19th-century registering of American Indians, any members who appeared black were put on the Freedmen role, no matter their history. The Seminole Nation made a similar ruling in 2000.

For the about 30,000 Cherokee Freedmen descendants (out of a tribal population of around 300,000), this meant they were cut out of the healthcare, education, and other benefits majorly funded by the millions of dollars of casino revenue and federal tax money (that each citizen of the United States helps support in a small way). Now as this very brief history summary shows, this is a complicated issue, one of cultural identity, race, and tribal sovereignty. By Blood interviews figures on both sides, and some of its expansion to a feature length explores how it fits into deeper racism in Oklahoma, a state where one of the country’s worse race riots occurred in Tulsa in 1921, and two men in 2012 (one white, one Cherokee) drove into Tulsa’s impoverished north neighborhood and shot five victims for no other reason than they were black.

David Cornsilk in 'By Blood'
David Cornsilk, who represented Cherokee Freedmen descendant Lucy Allen in ‘By Blood’

It would be easy to tip this film in one direction, with especially passionate voices from the Freedmen descendants like Sylvia Davis decrying at a meeting: “We’re still being treated the way they treated us back then.” Yet Barbery and Russell made a conscious effort to get just as many voices on the Cherokee Nation side, to show how after years of federal oppression they see this as an issue of the the government yet again telling them who their tribe should be, and further degrading their independence. It also points out less than 7 percent of the Cherokee Nation actually participated in the vote for the 2007 amendment, making this more an issue of a small group of tribal members (who predominantly appear white).

Legislation is still ongoing, and By Blood touches on some of the battles, such as Cherokee member David Cornsilk who was working full-time at Petsmart when the story of Freedmen descendant Lucy Allen touched him and he decided to represent her as a layman, winning her case in tribal court. However, the ruling was confronted by Cherokee Chief Chad Smith (who denied requests to be interviewed by By Blood), and now a complaint to get the government to uphold the Treaty of 1866 remains without a federal decision. “The Freedman are just waiting for a decision, and the Freedmen don’t understand why there’s been a delay,” Barbery said during a Q&A following the deadCenter screening.

By Blood could have been weighed down with all the legal proceedings, and the complex history, but it smartly lets the people involved tell their own story. And when the story is one like this that’s been so totally forgotten by much of the country, those voices are essential to showing how important it is to remember.

deadCenter Film Festival was June 10 to 14 in downtown Oklahoma City. By Blood directed by Marcos Barbery and Sam Russell is currently on the festival circuit. 

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