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StoryCorps in Oklahoma: Freedmen Leader "Slammed in the Face" With Discrimination (Sep 16, 2011)
Wednesday night the Cherokee Nation Election Commission voted to allow the freedmen descendants to participate in the upcoming Principal Chief election one week from Saturday. Marilyn Vann is the president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. She told StoryCorps last November that as a small child, she grew up knowing little of her heritage.

Marilyn Vann: “My father, who was relatively elderly when I was born, was an original enrollee. He was on the Dawes Rolls, and he was registered as a Cherokee freedman tribal member. But he was a small child. I don’t know if he knew if his political classification was as a freedman. He basically knew he was a citizen of the tribe.

One of my earliest memories as a child was in kindergarten when another student came up to me. I didn’t know anything about race when I was five years old, but now I know he was a Caucasian boy. He asked me ‘What kind of an Indian are you?’ I said, ‘Indian.’ He said, ‘Well what tribe of Indian are you?’ And I said ‘Tribe?’ And he said, ‘Well you can’t be colored.’ And I said, ‘Colored?’ So I went home and I asked my father ‘What do these words mean?’ He said, ‘Well, we’re Cherokee Indians. We also have African ancestry.’ It didn’t mean anything to me that day.

But later on, of course, these words did mean things to me. It wasn’t until about nine years ago that I found an elderly relative who knew more. And he had some roll numbers so I could try to register with the tribe. It wasn’t that I was not interested; it was based on when I was born and the ages of my closest family members.”

Vera Vann Jones: “Can you tell me how you felt when you found out that you could not register to be a Cherokee member?”

Marilyn Vann: "I didn’t understand. It seemed very strange to me. I called the tribe; I called the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It sounded like a scam. And I’m not a person that just be brushed off. I did some legal research, and then I saw it was a scam. So I had to involve my family. I told my husband, I told my daughter I wanted to start up an organization in order to fight this."

The reason I was so angry was I missed the Jim Crow schools. I missed the Jim Crow signs. When I was small, I heard a few people call my father or my uncle a “boy,” but this was the first time I had really been slammed in the face with racial discrimination. And then I was able to find out how the blacks in the tribes had been enrolled on different pieces of paper back when they were doing the final rolls. That anger propelled me to want to start an organization of people to fight to get the rights, and to stop these tribal disenrollments, and to force the tribes to start re-registering all the people who have a right to register in the tribes.”

Produced for KGOU by Brian Hardzinski, with interviews recorded by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to recording and collecting stories of everyday people. This particular interview was recorded as part of the Griot Initiative. The Senior Producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

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