February 11, 2007

The Cherokee Freedmen

In fight over Cherokee identity, tribe's past and future collide

The history:Long ago, as Cherokees struggled to remain independent of a white government, they were masters of black slaves.

Cherokees and other tribes brought slaves with them, when the federal government forced them to leave the Southeast and march to the Indian Territory that would become Oklahoma. After the tribe backed the losing side in the Civil War, the government demanded Cherokees free slaves and make them citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

The people, dubbed freedmen, embraced citizenship. They voted in tribal elections and ran for office. They served on the tribal council. They started businesses and became teachers in schools for freedmen children.
The present conflict:In the last 20 years, modern-day freedmen--descended from former slaves, free blacks, and others--have tried to reclaim citizenship. The resulting conflict provokes charges and countercharges that racism, greed and dirty politics are all at play.

"Do you want non-Indians...using your Health Care Dollars?" warned an e-mail circulated last summer by backers of a vote on citizenship. "...getting your Cherokee Nation scholarship dollars?...making your Housing wait list longer?...being made Indians?"
The underlying issue:So what makes a Cherokee?

Is it blood?

While some freedmen descendants surely have Indian blood, the majority probably don't, says Daniel Littlefield Jr. of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and author of a book, "The Cherokee Freedmen."

But, Littlefield says, blood should not matter.

Cherokees--who also count Shawnee and Delaware Indians and adopted whites as citizens--continued adopting blacks as citizens well after a treaty required it, making it hard to argue they were unwanted, he says. Once free to participate, there is ample evidence that black freedmen did just that.


The Local Crank said...

Cherokees don't receive any per capita from casino operations; it funds the government, so the benefits are indirect. and I'm not sure the Cherokee really need the inductees to swell their ranks, since they don't have a blood quantum limit like the other tribes. I've been blogging about the Freedman issue for awhile and I'm very bothered by the rampant (and blatant) fraud in the petition drive for the special election to kick the Freedmen out (detailed extensively in Justice Stacy Leeds dissenting opinion in the case before the Cherokee Supreme Court). I'm also worried that this will ultimate harm tribal sovereignty, since a federal judge has ruled that historical and current discrimination by the tribe against the Freedmen allows them to sue in federal court. I think the only viable compromise is a constitutional amendment to allow those Freedman descendants who have ancestors on the Dawes Roll to enroll if they can prove Indian blood by secondary sources (other rolls, the Cherokee census, etc.). It's not a perfect solution, of course, but the current enrollment system (where the question "who is a Cherokee?" depends solely on whether or not your great-great-grandfather decided to sign the Dawes Roll) isn't exactly equitable, either.

Rob said...

Your compromise solution sounds good to me, Patrick.