Did Cherokees Enslave Africans?

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Also. Did you know enslaved people hauled water and wood on the 1839 Trail of Tears for some Cherokee enslavers?

Look it up. Facts. And the subject of a powerful podcast well worth your 40 minutes. Harvard historian Tiya Miles’ work on this subject is also illuminating. Aside—in 2020, we hosted a very powerful festival on Native America: Watch our chat with two time U.S. Poet laureate Joy Harjo here

Rewatch our 2020 conversation with Joy Harjo

If you’re hearing about some Native American’s entanglement with slavery for the first time, it’s really important you understand how deeply enmeshed some enslaving Cherokees were with not just anti-blackness, but also, with a system of oppression that also oppressed them at the same time.

You have to hold two strange things at the same time—how could someone oppressed become so oppressive themselves? 

This isn’t an easy or casual conversation. It requires nuance and deep self-awareness, especially if you’re white. Because the root of white supremacy—even as practiced by some Cherokee—did not start with any Native American. No matter what far right wing talking heads will say, you cannot warp this example to make any point, except to point out how racism leads to nonsensical toxicity.

To me, this is a critical and nuanced conversation because it helps us understand how vulnerable we humans are to turning on each other when we are blinded by self-gain, even as we’re suffering ourselves. If a handful of Cherokee tribes could enslave humans and if some Black folks who’d themselves been formerly enslaved could then turn around and enslave Africans, then how can any of us pretend we’re immune to dehumanizing others? 

Freedmen, as black folks enslaved by some Cherokee are still known. Photo: Oklahoma Historical Society

In other words, this historical narrative helps us see ourselves and our own vulnerabilities more clearly. 

Maybe this us why I’m so drawn to the work of dismantling white supremacy, from the inside out. Everyone always wants to face the enemy out there. To point out what they’re doing wrong. Harder to acknowledge internalized anti-blackness. Harder still to consciously uproot the parts of ourselves that justify why some people can be othered, at our gain, even as we ourselves are being othered within a corrupt and larger ecosystem. 

To help you really dig into the demanding nuance of this conversation, I highly recommend a strong and potent dose of fiction. No, not even joking. Edward P. Jones’ brilliant, breathtaking magnum opus, The Known World, is a necessary starting point for appreciating just how layered understanding all this is. 

Read it. And when you’re ready for deep and thoughtful engagement on holding these contradictions—including how to tackle complex ideas in your own writing—sign up for our writing newsletter, The Work.Kin.Writer. Sign up Here.

This is for you if You’re a Creative Misfits keen to write an undertold story and get published. See you Sunday inside The Work.Kin.Writer.


p.s. said podcast on enslaved Black Cherokees, listen here.