Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — More than 170 years ago, the proud Cherokee people in the South were brutally driven into exile in Oklahoma along what became known as the Trail of Tears.

Now, an unlikely group of descendants is battling the tribe for its rights. They are the so-called black Cherokees, some of whose ancestors were held as slaves by members of the tribe.

Their quest came to a head in recent days as Cherokees went to polls in northeastern Oklahoma’s Indian country to select a new chief. Of the more than 300,000 Cherokees in America, about 2,800 are black, and many say their fate could ride on the outcome.

Tribes across the nation are wrestling with questions of identity, especially since tribal casinos began generating huge revenues. But the Cherokee Nation, unlike some tribes that allow gaming, does not divide casino profits among its citizens.

And though being a Cherokee in Oklahoma means having access to many services, such as a multimillion-dollar health center, the black Cherokees say the battle is really about identity.

Before the Civil War, some Cherokees owned slaves. After the war, tribal leaders signed a treaty granting blacks, known as “Freedmen,” the rights of native Cherokees.

Some tribal members say Freedmen were never really Cherokee, and that allowing their descendants to stay in the tribe unfairly grants them benefits and weakens tribal sovereignty.

Not all black Cherokees are descended from slaves owned by tribal members. Some are simply descended from blacks who married or had children with Cherokees and still refer to themselves as Freedmen.

Harold Baldridge, who works as a driver for the tribe, is among those who oppose citizenship for Freedmen. Baldridge, 58, has found records that show some of his Cherokee ancestors owned slaves. He is quick to say, “That don’t make them Cherokee.”

Baldridge is a descendant of Nancy Ward, a legendary figure in 18th-century Cherokee history.

Pamela Logan, 44, a lab technician, also traces her lineage to Ward. Although she does not speak Cherokee, she said her mother taught her to live “the Indian way,” off the land, and passed on some traditional recipes for fry bread, wild onions and poke salad.

But Logan is also descended from Freedmen, and she fears the tribe will deny her and others like her their rights. “We were part of making the Cherokee Nation what it is,” Logan said. “That’s like snatching who you are out from under you.”

The debate has roots in federal actions in 1893 and 1907.

In 1893, the U.S. government created the Dawes Rolls to register and divvy up land among members of what are known as the Five Civilized Tribes — Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole. U.S. officials classified about 32,000 as “Cherokee by blood” and about 5,000 as Freedmen.

After the rolls were closed in 1907, anyone claiming Cherokee citizenship had to trace their lineage to names and roll numbers on the original list and apply for identification cards, which entitled them to rights and benefits, such as health care and housing.

In the early 1980s, Cherokee officials restricted citizenship to those listed on the Dawes Rolls as “Cherokee by blood.”

“I have nothing against Freedmen,” Baldridge said. “Nothing against blacks — as long as they’re on the rolls” as “Cherokee by blood.”

This situation lasted more than two decades. Then, in 2006, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruled that descendants of Freedmen could enroll as tribal citizens. But the fight was not over. The tribal constitution was amended in a special election to again remove the Freedman from tribal rolls. That issue has been argued in courts ever since.