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New exhibit at Cherokee History Museum explores Freedmen history

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Cherokee Nation
"We Are Cherokee: Cherokee Freedmen and the Right to Citizenship" features the stories, histories, images and documents of Cherokee Freedmen, alongside nine original artworks by Cherokee Nation artists.

A new exhibit at the Cherokee History Museum explores the history of the Freedmen, the people formerly enslaved by the tribal nation.

Willie Scott and his son Brian drove from San Antonio, Texas to Tahlequah, Oklahoma to see a new exhibit at the Cherokee National Museum. "We are Cherokee: Freedmen and the Right to Citizenship" features the stories, histories, images and documents of Cherokee Freedmen, alongside nine original artworks by Cherokee Nation artists.

"That's my great-grandfather and great-grandmother right here on top-the Reverend Jackson and his kids," said Willie Scott, pointing out their family represented on the walls.

These photos of Rev. Jesse Jackson and other Freedmen tell part of the story about the enslavement of people by members of the Cherokee Nation, and their fight for justice and citizenship after emancipation.

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Allison Herrera
Willie Scott (left) and his son Brian (right) point to names of their ancestors on the wall at the Cherokee Freedmen exhibit.

Just last year, tribal officials announced they were removing the blood requirement for citizenship from their constitution in an effort to be more inclusive of the descendants of former slaves. Though many Freedmen married Native Cherokees and lived in the nation, court battles around their role in the tribe lasted for decades. So, the moment was a long time coming for the Scotts.

"It was a kind of a validation, so to speak," said Brian Scott. "You know, of the tie that bound us to our ancestors and in particular, like I knew my grandmother, his mom as well, and she's on the wall."

The exhibit is made up of stories, photos, documents and artwork made by Cherokee citizens. Earlier this year, a call went out to citizens asking them to submit their stories, and Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. hired a liaison to work with the Freedmen community.

Melissa Payne is that liaison, but it's something she was hesitant to do at first. Her late mother Rodslen Brown fought for years around issues affecting Freedmen, a cause Melissa later took over.

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Cherokee Nation
Melissa Payne speaks the reception for the Cherokee National Museum exhibit during the Cherokee National Holiday.

Now, she’s talking about this exhibit, and her ancestors' place in Cherokee history, including her mom's role as a culture bearer. Her award-winning baskets are in this exhibit, but she says this public display is just a start.

"You know not just for the Freedmen but for all of us," said Payne.

She has been tasked with communicating the needs and concerns of the Freedmen community to Hoskin Jr.'s office. She thinks there needs to be more understanding between Freedmen and Cherokee citizens.

"More coming together and more working together. Because as we lift each other, we lift ourselves. So we grow strong as a nation," said Payne during the festivities of the Cherokee National Holiday, a day celebrating the signing of the tribe's constitution in 1839. "It will never stop because we can continue to grow and learn. And as long as I have breath, I will continue to do so."

Things continue to change. In 2017, Cherokee Freedmen won the right to citizenship after a decades long court battle. One of the lead plaintiffs on that case was Marilyn Vann, who serves on the tribal nation's environmental commission — one of the first Freedmen to hold this position.

In 2020, Cherokee Nation removed two confederate monuments from the grounds of their historic courthouse and by removing the blood requirement from their Constitution, Freedmen are no longer barred from running for other tribal offices.

Willie and Brian recently became Cherokee citizens, and seeing this exhibit is just the latest sign of how far the tribal nation has come.

"It makes me want to learn more and more about the Trail of Tears and what really happened to the Cherokee Nation," said Willie Scott. "I'm going to start getting more educated on some of the events and everything."

There are currently almost 12,000 Cherokee Freedmen enrolled in the tribal nation. But, for Brian and Willie, citizenship isn't just a card. For them, it's validation of their family and their ancestors, as Cherokees.

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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