ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Cherokee Nation leaders marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday by acknowledging the tribe needs to come to terms with its treatment of former slaves, known as Freedmen.
The tribe — one of the country's largest — recognized the King holiday for the first time with participation in a King parade and a visit to the Martin Luther King Community Center in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Cherokee Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said Principal Chief Bill John Baker decided the tribe should honor the King holiday this year because of ongoing racial tensions nationwide and because the tribe is seeking to make amends with slavery.
King's writings spoke of injustices against Native Americans and colonization, but 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 slaves owned by tribe members 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, and director of the King Community Center there, said Monday's event was the first attended by members of the Cherokee Nation in honor of the holiday.
Baker later spoke at an after-party the tribe is sponsoring, and Hoskin served breakfast earlier in the day.
"We have a wonderful story to tell but we need to tell the whole story," Hoskin said.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona.
Associated Press writers Russell Contreras and Felicia Fonseca are member of the AP's race and ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras and Fonseca at http://twitter.com/FonsecaAP