Should Washington have a say in who is considered a full-fledged member of a Native American tribe?
That question has now moved to the forefront of a heated racial battle within the Cherokee nation, which earlier this year voted to exclude a group of blacks and multiracials known as the Freedmen from citizenship in the tribe. The Cherokee say they have the right to determine their membership, while the the Freedmen say their expulsion violates the tribe's post-Civil War treaty with the U.S. government. As the courts and the Interior Department mull over the case, Rep. Diane Watson, a Democrat from California, introduced legislation Thursday that would block the estimated $300 million in federal funds that the Cherokee receive annually and nullify their gaming rights unless the tribe reinstates equal membership to the Freedmen.
I'm not a huge proponent of the Federal government interposing itself in tribal matters, and who is permitted to be a member of a tribe is most assuredly a tribal matter. But the egregiousness of the Cherokee nation's actions calls for such a drastic solution:
The Freedmen's expulsion would strip them of tribal voting, housing and health care rights (though they will keep those benefits until the case is resolved).
That's why the case has drawn the ire of the entire Congressional Black Caucus, which, in recognition of the shared suffering of Native and African Americans, has been a consistent champion of Indian causes. When Cherokee voters decided to strip the Freedmen of their full membership they were essentially legitimizing the one-drop rule. At the turn of the 19th century, the U.S. government relied on that racist tool, originally used to determine whether people were black or not, in combination with other factors for a census of people living on Native American tribal lands. Those who seemed Cherokee, or Cherokee mixed with white, were placed on a "Cherokee-by-blood" list. Those who seemed black, or Cherokee mixed with black, were generally placed on a "Freedmen" list. Both lists, known as the Dawes Rolls, were used to divest the collective tribe of its land holdings and apportion acreage to individual members — to make way for white settlers to move in and buy up the individual holdings. But spouses of Freedmen did not receive land allotments, while spouses of Cherokee-by-blood did, and land given to Freedmen was made available for sale sooner than Indian land.
In other words, the designation as Cherokee or Freedmen was completely arbitrary, and made at the behest of racist U.S. government officials. Now some Cherokee in favor of booting out the Freedmen argue that the Freedman are not actually Cherokee at all, and as such do not deserve tribal membership. They're wrong for two reasons. As you can see from the explanation above, many of those who have just as much Cherokee blood as those put on the Dawes roll were put on the Freedman's roll instead because they "looked" black. I wouldn't be surprised if a substantial percentage of those Freedman actually had more Cherokee blood than some of the descendents of the Dawes roll Cherokee because as you and I well know, appearance does not always reflect genetic heritage.
But even if some of the Freedman being excluded from the tribe have no Cherokee blood whatsoever, this is still an insufficient reason to exclude them. For one, they have a unique historic tie to the Cherokee that makes an arbitrary designation of them as non-Cherokee completely absurd. Two, most Native tribes have always been much more informal about membership in their tribes. To them, what you look like doesn't matter so much as whether you and the tribe think you belong to the tribe. That's why many whites-and blacks-who have long lived among Natives are, for all intents and purposes but legal ones, are accepted as members of that tribe. Here's another excerpt from the article:
Perhaps more importantly, they have considered themselves Cherokee their whole lives. "There's a tremendous amount of cultural identification that former slaves felt with Native tribes, of shared homeland, food, familial ties," says Tiya Miles, a historian who runs the Native American Studies program at the University of Michigan. Cherokee had slaves. Cherokee also married, and slept with, blacks. And there were blacks who were adopted into the Cherokee tribe though they had no blood or slave ties. They all walked the Trail of Tears with the Cherokee, from the Deep South to Oklahoma.
These are the facts, but for blacks, especially, the mythology holds equally strong sway. A kinship with Native Americans has been a logical way to claim some sort of "non-black" status in a society where black is the most demeaned racial category. It's also helped ground many black people searching for an original homeland, says Miles. "Native America was connected to freedom," says Miles. "It was said slaves could run away to tribes and find shelter." Clearly that wasn't always the case, and the Cherokee controversy is, for Miles, "the end of innocence about what the historical relationship between African Americans and Native Americans really consisted of."
There should be no doubt that this measure is about two things: money, and race. Some members of the tribe want to save money by kicking out otherwise eligible other members of the tribe. And frankly, some members of the tribe are racist, and believe the only "true" Cherokee to be those who either "look" Cherokee or "look" white.
It's a damn shame that some members of the tribe would attempt this now. The Cherokee, and all Natives, have often succeeded against a far more powerful American society only because they've held the moral high ground. This move not only surrenders that ground, but spits and stomps on it in the process. The article points out that when the Seminole tried something similar a few years back, they relented under threats of funding withdrawals from the Federal government. $300 million dollars is a lot of money, and the Cherokee will probably do the same. But the damage is already done, and the bond between the Cherokee and the Freedmen is probably broken forever, whatever comes next.
UPDATE: By the way, Chad Smith, the Chief of the Cherokee Nation and an ardent supporter of expelling the Freedman, was re-elected this past weekend. Too bad.