Putting to a Vote the Question ‘Who Is Cherokee?’http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/03/us/03cherokee.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
By EVELYN NIEVES
TAHLEQUAH, Okla., March 1 — The casinos here are crowded by midmorning; busloads of tourists stroll the streets, and construction crews are everywhere. But peace of mind eludes the prospering Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
The Cherokees, so proud that they survived the racism and greed that forced them to leave the East and settle in Oklahoma, are embroiled in a debate that is dredging up some of the most painful chapters of their history. The fundamental question they are asking is: Who is Cherokee? And it is raising ugly accusations of racism, from both inside and outside the tribe.
At issue is a group barely known outside of Indian country, the Freedmen. These are the descendants of black slaves owned by Cherokees, free blacks who were married to Cherokees and the children of mixed-race families known as black Cherokees, all of whom joined the Cherokee migration to Oklahoma in 1838.
The Freedmen became full citizens of the Cherokee Nation after emancipation, as part of the Treaty of 1866 with the United States. But in 1983, by tribal decree, the Freedmen were denied the right to vote in tribal elections on the ground they were not “Cherokee by blood.”
They sued, and in December won their challenge. But that has prompted a bigger fight. On Saturday, the Cherokee Nation is holding a special election — believed to be the first of its kind — to decide, in essence, whether to kick the Freedmen out of the tribe.
Officially, the election will ask voters whether to amend the Cherokee Nation Constitution. Overriding the 1866 treaty, it would limit citizenship to those who can trace their heritage to “Cherokee by blood” rolls, part of a census known as the Dawes Rolls of 1906. The Freedmen would automatically be denied citizenship because the Dawes Rolls, a census commissioned by Congress to distribute land to tribal members, put the Freedmen on a separate roll that made no mention of Indian blood.
Proponents of the amendment say it is about drawing a line, a blood line. The Cherokee Nation, the second-largest tribe in the country after the Navajo, is also one of the fastest growing, with 270,000 members and 1,000 new citizens enrolled every month. Members are entitled to federal benefits and tribal services , including medical and housing aid and scholarships.
“Every other Indian tribe is based on blood, and they are not accused of being racists,” said John A. Ketcher, a former deputy tribal chief, in a full-page “Vote Yes” ad in the Cherokee newspaper.
Many tribal leaders are campaigning for the amendment, citing the right of a sovereign nation to determine its citizenship.
Voters say they have been bombarded with advertisements attacking “non-Indians” as thieves who would create long lines in Cherokee health clinics and social service centers.
Freedmen supporters chalk up the claims to bigotry. They say the Cherokee Nation knows all too well that many Freedmen (who number about 25,000) have Cherokee blood.
When the Dawes Rolls were created, those with any African blood were put on the Freedmen roll, even if they were half Cherokee. Those with mixed-white and Cherokee ancestry, even if they were seven-eighths white and one-eighth Cherokee, were put on the Cherokee by blood roll. More than 75 percent of those enrolled in the Cherokee Nation have less than one-quarter Cherokee blood, the vast majority of them of European ancestry.
Marilyn Vann said she could not believe that one election could determine whether she was allowed to claim Cherokee blood.
“There are Freedmen who can prove they have a full-blooded Cherokee grandfather who won’t be members,” said Ms. Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. “And there are blond people who are 1/1000th Cherokee who are members.”
Mike Miller, the Cherokee Nation spokesman, agreed.
“We are aware that there are those who can prove Indian blood who are not Cherokee citizens, because they are not on the Dawes ‘by blood’ Rolls,” Mr. Miller said. “But I don’t know of a single tribe that determines citizenship through a bunch of sources.”
This is the second time in recent years that an Indian nation has tried to remove its Freedmen. The Seminole Freedmen won a similar legal battle in 2003.
The Seminoles were formed when refugees from several tribes joined with runaway slaves. But after the Seminoles denied their Freedmen voting rights and financial benefits, effectively abrogating the Treaty of 1866, the federal government refused to recognize the Seminoles as a sovereign nation.
The Cherokees are also risking their tribal sovereignty, said Jon Velie, a lawyer for the Seminole and Cherokee Freedmen.
“There is this racial schism in Indian Country that is growing and getting worse,” Mr. Velie said. “Even having the debate is the problem. You then become a lesser person because people get to decide whether you’re in or not.”
Taylor Keen, a Cherokee tribal council member who supports Freedmen citizenship, suggested that proponents of the amendment were pandering to racism, trying to score political points for when they run for tribal office in June.
“This is a sad chapter in Cherokee history,” Mr. Keen said. “But this is not my Cherokee Nation. My Cherokee Nation is one that honors all parts of her past.”