Around the Nation
Mon September 19, 2011
U.S. Government Opposes Cherokee Nation's Decision
Every September, the Cherokee Nation celebrates its national holiday, which marks the signing of their first constitution after the Trail of Tears. The main event, a big parade, features traditional Cherokee music, colorful floats and people singing and dancing in traditional garb.
This year, the holiday that draws tens of thousands of people to Tahlequah, Okla. — the heart of the Cherokee Nation — was marked by controversy and protests.
It is a largely forgotten footnote of history that many wealthy Indians in the Deep South owned African slaves. Those slaves joined their Indian masters on the Trail of Tears, when Indians were pushed west into Oklahoma in the early 1800s. But now the Cherokee Nation has expelled about 2,800 descendants of slaves once owned by its members.
Whether it's racism or not, the decision puts it at odds with the federal government.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has already suspended more than $37 million in funding to the Cherokee Nation and the Justice Department said this week that a key election for tribal chief later this month will not be recognized by the federal government.
The move strips 2,800 African-Americans, who are known as "Freedmen," of benefits including medical care, food stipends and assistance for low-income homeowners.
Marilyn Vann, the leader of the group Descendants of Freedman, says the tribe's decision is nothing more than outright racism.
"They never said we were lying, they never said that evidence that is in the National Archives, that is in the libraries here, was false," Vann said. "But it's basically, we can do what we want to do — we have casinos, we can buy Washington, D.C. from the top on down — that's the mentality of the folks here."
The Cherokee's highest court ruled in late August that the black Freedmen could be stripped of their citizenship because they can't prove they have Indian blood. The tribe first voted in favor of this effort in 2007.
Cherokee leaders say it's not a matter of race, but a simple matter of narrowing the definition of Indian down to those people who can prove they have Indian blood.
"This is not a club, you can't just claim to be Cherokee and show up and be included," said Cara Cowan Watts, a vocal member of the Cherokee's tribal council.
The Cherokee Nation is the largest of three federally-recognized Cherokee tribes that boast more than 300,000 members and like many Indian nations, it fiercely defends its right to self-governance.
"This is absolutely something that we have to defend. And the Cherokee people overwhelmingly voted in the Constitution that we want to remain an Indian tribe made up of Indians," Watts said.
Watts notes that that the Freedmen will be allowed to regain their citizenship if they can simply prove they are part Indian.
"If anyone cares that much about the issue, if they come and take time to meet with us and hang out, there are over 1,500 Cherokees — or there's approximately 1,500 Cherokee citizens that are Indian by blood, and also descended from the Freedman Rolls," she said.
The rolls Watts refers to are better known as the Dawes Rolls, which were lists of Indian citizens created by the U.S. government in the early 1900s.
The Dawes Rolls included thousands of blacks and whites who had lived with Indian tribes such as the Cherokee for generations, who historically were recognized as Cherokee citizens.
And that's why some view the tribe's recent decision as unjust.
"Now I have to say frankly, that when you start making a blood argument for membership in an organization, you are dealing with race whether you want to or not," Daniel Littlefield, a historian at the University of Arkansas who has written books on this subject, said.
He said there's another problem with the nation's decision: many black Freedman actually have Indian blood.
But the problem, he says, is that blacks — even those who were part Indian — were simply labeled as black on the Dawes Rolls and those Indians mixed with white were labeled Indian.
That's why Littlefield thinks it's unfair for the Freedmen to be singled out.
"There were many Cherokees in the Cherokee Nation and on the Cherokee-by-blood roll who had very little blood quantum. If you think that one-one-thousand twenty-fourth Cherokee blood makes you a Cherokee, then that to me is one of the most blatant forms of racism," Littlefield said.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs declined an interview request.