TAHLEQUAH — Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker’s voice choked with emotion on Saturday as he addressed the descendants of Cherokee freedmen descendants during his State of the Nation address.
“Our freedmen brothers and sisters made that Trail of Tears journey with us,” Baker said.
“We are taking steps to begin the healing for all parties. It has gone on far too long and inflicted too much pain upon too many people.”
The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma said on Thursday it will not appeal a decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that states freedmen have the same rights to tribal citizenship as “native Cherokees” under an 1866 treaty.
Baker made his address during the Cherokee Nation Holiday ceremony at the Cherokee Nation Courthouse Square.
“We are strong. We are resilient. We are the descendants of Cherokees who endured unimaginable hardships. Our freedmen brothers and sisters made that Trail of Tears journey with us,” Baker said.
The court’s decision, and the Cherokees’ decision not to appeal it, settled a long-standing rift dating back to the recreation of Oklahoma tribal governments in the 1970s.
Rosie Green, 82, of South Coffeyville, said she sympathizes with the freedmen. Her great-grandfather was one-half Cherokee and crossed the Trail of Tears with his grandmother, she said.
“He fought at this courthouse for his rights,” Green said.
The Cherokee National Holiday honors the signing of the Cherokee Nation Constitution in 1839. The courthouse square was lined with parents pushing small children in strollers and pet owners corralling dogs on leashes, all under an overcast sky with raindrops falling here and there.
Baker’s State of the Nation address also touched on environmental concerns.
“All Cherokees should feel a desire to protect clean water for our current and for the next seven generations,” he said.
Baker highlighted the tribe’s quick action when a company wanted to bury 12,000 tons of radioactive material near the banks of the Arkansas and Illinois rivers.
Fighting together in court to stop the disposal, the tribe and the state of Oklahoma obtained a restraining order against a long-out-of-business Sequoyah Fuels facility, located in the town of Gore.
“We took this corporation to court and prevented radioactive sludge from being buried in Sequoyah County,” he said.
Baker said he also signed two new executive orders this year that take steps toward protecting the tribe’s natural resources, including reducing the carbon emissions from tribal operations by 25 percent by the year 2027 and limit the use of Styrofoam products.
“Instead of being part of the problem, we are taking the lead in becoming part of the solution,” he said.
Baker said other initiatives included a major wind energy project that provides 200 megawatts of clean energy and the construction of a solar energy canopy that provides clean energy to the complex that lets visitors and employees charge their electric vehicles.
Cherokee Nation citizens who traveled to a North Dakota American Indian reservation last year to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline also were honored Saturday.
A Cherokee Nation delegation hand-delivered a $10,000 check to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and three truckloads of firewood to the Sacred Stone campsite in North Dakota.
“We honor those who traveled to Standing Rock,” said Chuck Hoskin Jr., Cherokee Nation Secretary of State.
Critics say the pipeline would potentially contaminate one of North America’s longest rivers.
“Water is sacred — water is life,” Hoskin said.