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Race, Sovereignty, and Civil Rights: Understanding the Cherokee Freedmen Controversy

By Circe Sturm

Cite As:
Sturm, Circe. 2014. “Race, Sovereignty, and Civil Rights: Understanding the Cherokee Freedmen Controversy.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 3: 575–598.


Despite a treaty in 1866 between the Cherokee Nation and the federal government granting them full tribal citizenship, Cherokee Freedmen—the descendants of African American slaves to the Cherokee, as well as of children born from unions between African Americans and Cherokee tribal members—continue to be one of the most marginalized communities within Indian Country. Any time Freedmen have sought the full rights and benefits given other Cherokee citizens, they have encountered intense opposition, including a 2007 vote that effectively ousted them from the tribe. The debates surrounding this recent decision provide an excellent case study for exploring the intersections of race and sovereignty. In this article, I use the most recent Cherokee Freedmen controversy to examine how racial discourse both empowers and diminishes tribal sovereignty, and what happens in settler-colonial contexts when the exercise of tribal rights comes into conflict with civil rights. I also explore how settler colonialism as an analytic can obscure the racialized power dynamics that undermine Freedmen claims to an indigenous identity and tribal citizenship.


Native North America; Cherokee Freedmen; race; sovereignty; settler colonialism; citizenship