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Downsizing Cherokee Nation in 500 Years of Politics

A descendant of Mohawk Nation and trained in anthropology, Patty has researched and reported on indigenous peoples for over four decades.

Is Cherokee Nation becoming smaller?

Is Cherokee Nation becoming smaller?

Turmoil Around Native Minorities

Native Americans had been featured in the news with increasing frequency since Crow Nation adopted President Barack Obama as a member in 2008. Then, Lakota Nation seceded from the United States and proceeded to bill federal agencies for "squatting" on their native-owned lands.

Increasing numbers of indigenous groups are now renewing efforts to become Federally Recognized Tribes or at least State Recognized Tribes but are encountering some opposition. At the same time, many people want to join tribes, even though they have little or no proof of ancestry.

Eradication of indigenous rights for all native nations proceeded under the administrations of President Truman through President Kennedy. The U.S. Congress attempted to eliminate all federal recognition of Native Americans. During the 2010s, Cherokee Nation controversially downsized by expelling Black members.

The Cherokee Nation of Indians (1887 N 05/1883–1884, pages 121–378), by Charles C. Royce

The Cherokee Nation of Indians (1887 N 05/1883–1884, pages 121–378), by Charles C. Royce

Ejecting Members of Cherokee Nation

Ex-slaves (Freedmen) who moved to Oklahoma with the Cherokee in the mid-19th century, along with their descendants, were listed in tribal records as native citizens until about 1980.

After 1980, tribal leaders amended the Freedmen's membership requirements to mandate direct descent from an ancestor listed in the Cherokee By Blood section of the official Dawes Rolls that counted native numbers.

This action disallowed many Black descendants of the original Cherokee Freedmen, because they could not prove blood ties. The tribe stripped these former citizens of voting rights and citizenship, and while these controversial legal actions received backlash, they continued to 2007 and were re-examined in 2011.

Stronger backlash began in 2011 when HUD decided to deny Cherokee Nation funding after the tribal Supreme Court tossed Black people from membership. HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) funds already on deposit to the tribe were frozen, and a $33,000,000 withdrawal attempt in later 2011 was denied.

Loss of Rights and Benefits

The tribal governing body decided that descendants of the African slaves formerly owned by Cherokees would be removed from tribal rolls and lose all membership benefits. The leadership also voted to include all tribal-owned Black slaves of the 18th century without appeal in 2007. While the vote was found to be legal, the reasons for the ouster were unclear. Allegations of racism, election tampering, and vote-blocking were voiced.

The African slaves and biracial offspring who were members of the tribe during the Trail of Tears were also forced-marched to Oklahoma by the U.S. Federal Government of 1838. Many of these now-ejected members had died of hypothermia, starvation, over-exertion, and severe illnesses. Their ejection seemed unfair and cruel.

Freedmen Lawsuits and Bills

  • Lucy Allen vs. the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council, 1983: The Nation's right to expel Black people and their descendants was upheld.
  • H.R. 2824 [110th]: To sever US relations with the Cherokee Nation: A 2007 bill in the U.S. Congress to sever United States government relations with the Cherokee Nation until Freedmen and their descendants regain their citizenship.

A U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the Cherokee Freedmen. The judge reaffirmed their rights, citing the 1866 treaty the Cherokee Nation and the US government signed after the Civil War.

— Allison Herrera of, August 31, 2017

This is Mr. Frank Barnett, an African-American and part Cherokee in Scull Shoals, Georgia. His and many others' memberships were revoked but reinstated in 2017.

This is Mr. Frank Barnett, an African-American and part Cherokee in Scull Shoals, Georgia. His and many others' memberships were revoked but reinstated in 2017.

Changes in Tribal Population Census

The 1896 Dawes Commission Index of America's indigenous people listed 14,000 individuals total in all of the Five Civilized Tribes, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. Blood quanta or percentages of "Indian blood" were not included or considered in the count.

By 2019, the U.S. Census had found an increased number of Cherokee people in America across several states.

U.S. Census of Cherokee Nation, 2019

Data taken from My Tribal Area of the U.S. Census Bureau. The largest group, in Oklahoma, actually has no blood quantum requirements for membership.

DesignationStateNumber of Members

Cherokee Nation OTSA

Tahlequah, Oklahoma

518,991 (120,000 in 2010)

Cherokee Nation SDTSA

Northeast Alabama


Eastern Band Cherokee

North Carolina


United Ani-Yun-Wiya Band

Northern Alabama


United Keetoowah Band

Tahlequah, Oklahoma

16,000 in 2010

Outcomes and Census Numbers

Since the summer of 2017, the expelled Freedmen and all their expelled descendants who had been members of Cherokee Nation were restored to membership with full rights and benefits.

The U.S. census shows that the number of members of the tribe has been increasing since 2010.

Ready for the Green Corn Dance in Cherokee NC.

Ready for the Green Corn Dance in Cherokee NC.

About the Next Video

"American Red and Black: Stories of Afro-Native Identity" is produced by Alicia Woods. Made in 2006, this film looks at six Afro-Native Americans from around the United States. They speak about their thoughts on complex issues of Native and African heritage, ethnic identity, and racism inside multicultural communities.

Contributions of Cherokee Nation

The tribe is well known and includes full-bloods, biracial members, and Black people. It has been highlighted in history texts, the arts, movies, literature, and song, including Indian Reservation/Lament of the Cherokee Nation by Paul Revere and the Raiders.

The journalist and humorist Will Rogers was a documented 1/4 Cherokee tribal member and contributed great amounts of laughter as well as political commentary to the world in the early 20th century. He brought more recognition to this tribe with his nickname, "Cherokee Kid." The Cherokee Heritage Center and the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma, hosted an exhibit on the life of Rogers from September 2018 through March 2019.

This nation of indigenous peoples and Freedmen is increasing in numbers and will likely make many future contributions to American society.

Cherokee Values, American Values: tribute plaque from the Cherokee people to Will Rogers in 1946

Cherokee Values, American Values: tribute plaque from the Cherokee people to Will Rogers in 1946


  • Dawes Rolls | National Archives
  • Hubbard, J. Cherokee Nation announces 2018 Cherokee National Treasure honorees.; 2018.
  • Inglish, P. Famous and Inspiring Cherokee People. Retrieved October 10, 2018.
  • Fixico, D.L. Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945-1960. University of New Mexico Press; 1986. Included in The Journal of American History 93(1); March 1988.
  • United States Census Bureau. My Tribal Area.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Patty Inglish MS