Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century

Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century

Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century

Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century


"We believe by blood only," said a Cherokee resident of Oklahoma, speaking to reporters in 2007 after voting in favor of the Cherokee Nation constitutional amendment limiting its membership. In an election that made headlines around the world, a majority of Cherokee voters chose to eject from their tribe the descendants of the African American freedmen Cherokee Indians had once enslaved. Because of the unique sovereign status of Indian nations in the United States, legal membership in an Indian nation can have real economic benefits. In addition to money, the issues brought forth in this election have racial and cultural roots going back before the Civil War.

Race and the Cherokee Nation examines how leaders of the Cherokee Nation fostered a racial ideology through the regulation of interracial marriage. By defining and policing interracial sex, nineteenth-century Cherokee lawmakers preserved political sovereignty, delineated Cherokee identity, and established a social hierarchy. Moreover, Cherokee conceptions of race and what constituted interracial sex differed from those of blacks and whites. Moving beyond the usual black/white dichotomy, historian Fay A. Yarbrough places American Indian voices firmly at the center of the story, as well as contrasting African American conceptions and perspectives on interracial sex with those of Cherokee Indians.

For American Indians, nineteenth-century relationships produced offspring that pushed racial and citizenship boundaries. Those boundaries continue to have an impact on the way individuals identify themselves and what legal rights they can claim today.


she was a yaller lady, almost full Injun,
but she got tangled up wid de dark folks

—Former slave Mandy Jones, 1930s, describing a female relative

During a 1930s interview with a worker from the Works Progress Administration, Drucilla Martin described herself and her family lineage: “I’se half Indian and I look it too, and if I wo’ gold rings in my ears and nose I would look just like my mammy did ’cause she was full blooded Indian. I don’t know what kind, but she was big and tall and had black hair, she would sit on it and it was as cou’se as a mule’s tail. She carried a tomhawk and eve’y one stepped to one side when they met her on the turnpike.” Martin, like many other former slaves whose recollections live on in the wpa slave narratives, claimed American Indian ancestry. Martin’s account of her family tree is representative of those of her contemporaries in its inclusion of an Indian woman and its lack of specificity about Indian tribal designations. the informants often declared their American Indian heritage with pride, speaking of black unions with Indians positively. the ex-slaves, however, maintained decidedly negative opinions of sexual relationships between blacks and whites. When the ex-slaves did identify the tribal affiliation of their Indian ancestors, they often referred to them as Cherokee.

The former slaves’ frequent allusions to Indian mothers and grandmothers with long, flowing hair invites questions: What did Indians think of their unions with blacks? Further, what did American Indians think of unions with whites? How common were interracial relationships among American Indians during the nineteenth century? the casual reader might wonder if American Indians would have proudly proclaimed their African ancestry and mentioned black relatives. Or perhaps American Indians would have glossed over the occurrence of interracial sex and claimed an ignorance of any black claims to indigenous identity. Moreover, did American Indian attitudes toward interracial relations vary with . . .

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