The 250,000-member Cherokee Nation will vote in a special election today whether to override a 141-year-old treaty and change the tribal constitution to bar "freedmen," the descendants of former tribal slaves, from being members of the sovereign nation.Why would they think that it's about racism and not saving money? Oh, probably because of things like this:
"It's a basic, inherent right to determine our own citizenry. We paid very dearly for those rights," Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith said in an interview last month in Oklahoma City.
But the Cherokee freedmen see the vote as less about self-determination than about discrimination and historical blinders. They see in the referendum hints of racism and a desire by some Cherokees to deny the tribe's slave-owning past.
"Don't get taken advantage of by these people. They will suck you dry," Darren Buzzard, an advocate of expelling the freedmen, wrote last summer in a widely circulated e-mail denounced by freedmen. "Don't let black freedmen back you into a corner. PROTECT CHEROKEE CULTURE FOR OUR CHILDREN. FOR OUR DAUGHTER[S] . . . FIGHT AGAINST THE INFILTRATION."Perhaps you're thinking that the Freedman, descendents of slaves owned by the Cherokee, are not themselves Cherokee at all, in which case the Cherokee nation would have a better case for expelling them from the tribe. But that's not the case:
By the late 1880s, Washington started opening up tribal lands in Oklahoma to white settlers, breaking previous pledges to the tribes. As a step toward ending tribal ownership of Indian Territory, Congress initiated a new census of the "Five Civilized Tribes" -- a census known as the Dawes Commission. It is that head count that the Cherokee Nation would use to determine the eligibility of freedmen.Which means that many, or most, or maybe even all of the Freedman who the Cherokee nation is now voting to expel, could have Cherokee ancestors. A person who seeks to establish their eligibility for membership in the Cherokee nation need only show that they had an ancestor on the Dawes roll. They themselves could be 128th part Cherokee or less, so long as they have an ancestor on the rolls (there's no blood quantum requirement for the Cherokee, as there is for some tribes.) In other words, many of these Freedmen who will be expelled if this measure passes could be as Cherokee as most members of the Cherokee nation, if not more. But they'll be expelled because of census takers who held the 19th and early 20th century view that if you were even a bit black, you were all black and only black. Because of that policy, none of these Freedman will ever be able to establish membership in the tribe, even if they have family records that prove the are descendents of Cherokee ancestors.
Past censuses of the tribes had noted both the Indian and the African ancestry of freedmen, counting those of mixed heritage as Native Americans. The Dawes Commission took a different approach.
Setting up tents in fields and at crossroads, the census takers eyeballed and interviewed those who came before them, separating them into different categories. If someone seemed to be Indian or white with Indian blood, the commission listed that person as whole or part Indian, historians say. People who the officials thought looked black were listed as freedmen, and no Indian lineage was noted, according to freedmen and historians.
"In cases of mixed freedmen and Indian parents," Kent Carter wrote in his book "The Dawes Commission," applicants were "not given credit for having any Indian blood."
Quite simply, this vote is a disgusting spectacle. If it's motivated by the desire to save money, it's disgusting. If it's motivated by racism and xenophobia, it's even more disgusting. The ancestors of the Freedman were enslaved by the Cherokee, and the Cherokee owe them a debt that can never fully be repaid. Many of them are for all intents and purposes as Cherokee as the most traditional member of the tribe, and more Cherokee than people such as myself. To expel them from the tribe for any reason is an insult to them and to history.
UPDATE: Jack Balkin on the vote:
One reason why the Reconstruction Republicans may have added the Citizenship Clause to the Fourteenth Amendment was a fear that once they lost power, the former defenders of the slaveocracy might seek to strip black freedmen of their citizenship status. If so, it was not an entirely idle fear, as this case demonstrates. The legacy of slavery is still very much with us in the vote over the status of freedmen in the Cherokee Nation.Indeed.
Advocates for expulsion of black freedmen from the Cherokee may appropriately be worried about large number of people making fraudulent claims of membership, or large numbers of people seeking entry who have too attenuated a connection to the tribe. If that is so, there are less restrictive alternatives than booting out all descendants of freedmen from the Nation-- including those descendants who are currently in the tribal rolls and have lived as Cherokees for generations. Moreover, these alternatives for restricting membership would not distinguish, as the proposed policy does, between those whose ancestors were or were not slaves. Following the Civil War the American Nation accepted that its former slaves were members of its national community; the Cherokee Nation should do so as well.
UPDATE: Here are some useful links Nat-Wu provides, on a failed challenge to the petition that brought this issue up for a vote, and a FAQ that explains Cherokee enrollment requirements. The article is informative, but I find the FAQ to be somewhat disingenuous in its emphasis that Freedmen who can still prove they had an ancestor on the Dawes roll will still entitled to citizenship. They are not the issue, as they are Cherokee citizens. The Freedmen who cannot, who were arbitrarily listed as non-Indian by white commissioners, are the issue.
UPDATE2: Nat-Wu here. You can watch the poll returns live here. Sadly, at the time I write this, it appears that the amendment will pass. It's just shameful.
UPDATE III: Unsurprisingly (I'm sad to say) the measure passed.