By Chuck Hoskin Jr.
Guest review. Cherokee history is full of rich moments and great triumphs. Throughout history, the Cherokee people have acted collectively to overcome tragedy, overcome trauma, and build a great nation. Telling this story is important. But a great nation is strong enough to tell the whole story, including the times when we inflicted trauma on others.
For the Cherokee Nation, what may be our darkest act is when we enslaved other human beings and then deprived them and their descendants of their basic human rights for over a century. . Under our own laws, parts of our economy were built on the backs of slaves. We must recognize that there have been times when we have imposed trauma on others; we must recognize that we have enslaved African Americans under our own law. If we ignore or suppress this, we are doing to the freedmen and their descendants the same things that were done to the Cherokee. Our story has been deleted; our story has been denied. Any nation is a stronger nation if it tells its full story: the tragedy, the triumph, and the dark and difficult chapters.
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The Cherokee story has been suppressed and denied, but we persevered and now we can tell that story again – the whole story. That’s why I’m honored to announce the new exhibit at the Cherokee National History Museum in downtown Tahlequah, “We Are Cherokee: Cherokee Freedmen and the Right to Citizenship.” This unique experience celebrates the deeply moving history of the Cherokee Freedmen in family stories and images shared by their descendants, as well as original artwork inspired by the Freedmen experience.
The exhibit grew out of the work of the Cherokee Freedmen Art and History Project launched by my administration in early 2021. Guided by a group of Cherokee Freedmen Community Advisors, Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism has worked diligently for over a year to bring together stories, images and documents, alongside nine original artworks by Cherokee Nation artists created specifically for this project.
The exhibit spans from the Cherokee Nation’s first known involvement in slavery in the 18th century to the 2017 U.S. District Court ruling that upheld the 1866 treaty and reaffirmed that the Cherokee Freedmen were citizens of the Cherokee nation. Today, more than 11,800 citizens of Freedman descent are registered in the Cherokee Nation, but our work of reconciliation has only just begun.
This exhibition also highlights the importance of treaties. The 1866 treaty, which states that freedmen and their descendants will have all the rights of native Cherokees, is part of a larger document that contains many essential rights and obligations for the Cherokee nation. When I go to the United States Congress and executive branch officials and ask them to fulfill their treaty obligations, my words are backed by the fact that the Cherokee Nation is fulfilling its obligations. By honoring the rights of the descendants of freedmen, we are honoring the treaty promises made by our ancestors
It empowers our efforts to secure all of our treaty rights, whether it’s the rights to hunt and fish, our right to a delegate in the United States House of Representatives, our right to administer justice on our reserve which was recognized in the historic McGirt case, and more. Slowly but surely, we are finally compelling the United States to meet its treaty obligations, but we could not do so without meeting ours.
Plus, it’s just the right thing to do. If there is one nation that should lead on the subject of civil rights, it should be the Cherokee Nation. This is a topic that is personal to me and to our First Lady, January. We are deeply concerned about future generations, our children and grandchildren, and the world in which they will live. For future generations, we are moving towards greater equality and human rights for all.
The exhibit can be viewed in Tahlequah at the Cherokee National History Museum, which is open to the public and free.
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