Cherokee Freedmen Cover Explained

by Michael Mason


Questions have arisen regarding the May 15, 2013 cover image of This Land magazine which warrant an explanation. The cover is an illustration of a silhouetted figure of a Native American wearing a headdress, with the text “One Fire: The Cherokee Nation’s Identity Crisis” displayed over the figure’s face.

The cover image is an illustration a photo taken of Cherokee Freedmen descended Robert Banks. In 2011, it was exhibited in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of American Indian and displayed during a 2011 show at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. The photo is also reproduced inside the 5/15 edition of This Land. The photographer, Peggy Fontenot, is Cherokee, and her portrait comes from the acclaimed series “Merging Cultures and Surviving Assimilation: The Contemporary Native American.” The photo is poignant for different reasons. It shows a man of apparent African descent in Native American attire. And it also depicts a Cherokee Freedmen wearing a headdress, when traditional Cherokee dress never included a headdress.

The image was never meant to portray the Cherokee people; it was meant to convey the confusion surrounding the Cherokee Freedmen. In order to appropriately convey the  confusion, we turned to an important image that captured the complexity of the subject matter. The decision to proceed with this controversial image was debated internally, prior to publication, and eventually approved as the most effective image for our cover. As Oklahomans, we understand the sensitivities surrounding issues involving Native American affairs. We also understand the importance of conveying accurate images about Native American traditions. With these values in mind, the image of a Cherokee Freedmen in a headdress stands as a powerful symbol for the confusion that surrounds the Freedmen identity, and it serves as the image we have chosen to most accurately represent the reporting contained in this important edition of This Land.