The day will take on a renewed meaning for descendants of black slaves owned by the Cherokee Nation but whose tribal citizenship was in flux until recently, despite a treaty guaranteeing rights equal to native Cherokees.
The tribe — one of the country’s largest — is recognizing the King holiday for the first time this year with calls to service and speeches in which the tribe plans to confront its past. King’s writings spoke of injustices against Native Americans and colonization, but Cherokee Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the tribe had its own form of internal oppression and dispossession.
“The time is now to deal with it and talk about it,” said Hoskin. “It’s been a positive thing for our country to reconcile that during Dr. King’s era, and it’s going to be a positive thing for Cherokee to talk about that history as part of reconciling our history with slavery.”
Such talk from tribal officials would have been surprising before a federal court ruled last year that the descendants of former slaves, known as Freedmen, had the same rights to tribal citizenship, voting, health care and housing as blood-line Cherokees.
One descendant of Freedmen, Rodslen Brown-King, said her mother was able to vote as a Cherokee for the first and only time recently. Other relatives died before getting the benefits that come with tribal citizenship, including a 34-year-old nephew with stomach cancer, she said.
“He was waiting on this decision,” said Brown-King, of Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. “It’s just a lot of struggle, a lot of up and down trauma in our lives. It’s exciting to know we are coming together and moving forward in this.”
Derrick Reed, a city councilman in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and director of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center there, said Monday’s events will be the first attended by the Cherokee Nation in honor of the holiday. Principal Chief Bill John Baker is scheduled to speak at an after-party the tribe is sponsoring, and Hoskin is serving breakfast earlier in the day.
“All the freedmen are finally relieved to be recognized, and their story itself has been a civil rights struggle,” Reed said. “It’s definitely a turning point in the history of the relationship with the Freedmen Indians as well as the message the tribe is sending to the nation.”
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Associated Press Writer Corey R. Williams in Detroit contributed to this report.