Law | National

This Land: One man's fight for Cherokee Freedmen justice

This Land Magazine publishes a lengthy article about the Freedmen citizenship dispute within the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the role played by David Cornsilk, a tribal member:
On an oppressively hot evening last May, David Cornsilk addressed a room of so-called “black Indians” at Gilcrease Hills Baptist Church in northwest Tulsa. He wore a leather-braided bolo tie clasped by an emerald quartz. Though Cornsilk never formally studied law, his voice bellowed with the rhetorical ire of a white-shoed seasoned litigator.

“By a show of hands, how many folks here tonight are Freedmen?” Cornsilk asked into the microphone. Each raised an arm. Visibly dismayed, Cornsilk shook his head. It was a trick question.

“No,” Cornsilk said. “The Freedmen died a long time ago. You are not Freedmen. You are Cherokee, and it is time that you begin to recognize who you are.”

Cornsilk is Cherokee, and a self-taught civil rights advocate and genealogist. He traces his slave-owning ancestors back to their aboriginal lands of Georgia and Tennessee—to a period before the Trail of Tears. Cornsilk is not a Cherokee Freedmen descendant. For nearly two decades, however, Cornsilk fought for the citizenship rights of Freedmen descendants—blacks who descend from slaves once owned by Cherokee and other tribes.

While working full-time as a clerk at Petsmart, Cornsilk took on America’s second-largest Indian tribe, the Cherokee Nation, in what led to a landmark tribal decision. Cornsilk served as a lay advocate, which permits non-lawyers to try cases before the Cherokee Nation’s highest court. When Cornsilk was not unloading dog food from truck beds and stocking shelves under the sounds of chirping parakeets, he composed legal briefs on the rights of Freedmen descendants, made oral arguments in court, and responded to a flurry of technical motions submitted by his opponents.

Get the Story:
From One Fire (This Land Magazine May 2013)

Related Stories:
Freedmen anticipate Cherokee Nation appeal to Supreme Court (03/14)
DC Circuit won't reconsider decision in Cherokee Freedmen suit (03/13)

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