Tuesday, March 06, 2007

More on the Freedmen

A reader over at Balkinization responds with some really good insight on the expulsion of the Cherokee "freedmen" over the weekend:

Add to all of this the fact that Friday's vote was just the very latest step in an expulsion attempt that began in 1975—long before gaming revenue was ever thought of—and you get a clearer picture of the problems of reducing the struggle to a fight about money. In my opinion, the "protecting financial resources" argument is and always has been code language for "keeping out the blacks" in much the same way that "preserving Southern heritage" was for segregationist Southern whites. It is what people feel it's acceptable to say in public given that we have reached a point in our nation's history where overt public displays of racism are generally frowned upon. However, you don't have to push hard to see the racial undertones. Chief Smith loves to point out, for example, that the Freedman were "compensated" with land allotments "unlike freed slaves in the South after the Civil War," the implication being, I guess, that since black Indians already got more than any other black people, they should just be thankful for (the very little) they got and stop asking for more.

...One of the few things the national media has gotten right is that the Dawes Rolls were illegitimate, replete with error, and corrupt. Many, many Cherokee—some claim it was more often than not the full-blood, relatively less assimilated and disinclined to assimilate Cherokees—refused to register. None of my Cherokee ancestors (and I have many) appear on the Dawes Rolls. Reasons for refusal varied. Some distrusted the government. Some didn't want to disaggregate the land, or feared that the lists might be used to persecute them. Whatever the reason, the fact that many Cherokee are unregistered is a point of little dispute. The Cherokee Nation admits that there are many individuals living in Oklahoma who are Cherokee but who are not citizens of the Cherokee Nation because they can prove no Dawes ancestry. In addition, many of the Freedman had as much or more Cherokee blood than the "by blood" registrees, but racist census takers listed them as Freedmen (i.e. without Cherokee blood) simply because they "looked black." By contrast, many of the tribal representatives in charge of assisting with the registration were themselves relatively assimilated and/or mostly white.

Sadly, the tribal race politics do not stop with the Cherokee. Each of the five so-called "Civilized Tribes" has made efforts to exclude the Freedmen. The Seminole, after voting their Freedmen out in 2000, had their funds cut off by the US government and were forced to take them back. I suspect this is what will happen to the Cherokee as well. So in the end, the real "winners" in this may be the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Muscogee (Creek) Nations, each of whom, after the ambiguous Cherokee Constitution of 1975, had the foresight to disenfranchise more explicitly their Freedmen in their original reconstituted Constitutions, thus eliminating the need to draw national attention to themselves by doing it by special election.
There's more, and I recommend reading his comments in full. But what should be becoming clear by now is the complete arbitrariness by which the tribal government can say who is or is not Cherokee, which is in complete contrast to the tradition I've personally witnessed whereby even those who have no Cherokee lineage can be "adopted" into the tribe merely by common acceptance, and how this arbitrariness can really just be thinly veiled racism of the kind which I still prefer to believe most Cherokee are above. It saddens me to think that the Cherokee nation may have to be rescued from their own fool-hardiness by a federal government which is rarely sympathetic to their interests.

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