September 22, 2007

Blacks shunned at Cherokee clubs

Fight over Cherokee identity spills into new Calif. culture clubsDiane Ross-Neal grew up hearing about her Cherokee heritage, so when the tribe promoted clubs for the thousands of members living in California, it seemed natural for her to share her own story. She soon realized that not everyone wanted to hear it.

At meetings, she says, organizers tried to pry the microphone from her hands, called her a liar or refused to let her speak at all. The reason, Ross-Neal says, is simple: She is black.

Ross-Neal, 62, is one of hundreds of people who call themselves Cherokee freedmen, descendants of slaves owned by the tribe before being freed. An 1866 treaty with the United States stated that all slaves and their descendants were tribal members.

Now, however, the Cherokees are trying to kick the freedmen out and the fledgling cultural clubs across California are shaping up as another battleground in a protracted fight.

"I went to all the meetings and I felt so unwelcome," Ross-Neal said of the California clubs. "I kid you not, it was like, 'What are you doing here? You're black, you're not Cherokee.' It was so thick you could cut it with a knife."

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