Balkinization  

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Who is A Cherokee? And Who Decides?

JB

The Washington Post has a fascinating article about an upcoming election among members of the Cherokee Nation that will decide whether to expel freedmen-- former slaves of the Cherokee Indians-- from membership in the nation itself.

Cherokees, along with Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles, were long known as the "Five Civilized Tribes" because they adopted many of the ways of their white neighbors in the South, including the holding of black slaves.

Many of the Cherokees' slaves accompanied the tribe when it was expelled from its traditional lands in North Carolina and Georgia and forced to migrate in 1838 and 1839 to Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma. Thousands of Cherokees died during the trip, which became known as the "Trail of Tears." It is not known how many of their slaves also perished.

The tribe fought for the Confederacy. In defeat, it signed a federal treaty in 1866 committing that its slaves, who had been freed by tribal decree during the war, would be absorbed as citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

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.

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."

Baldridge's ancestors are recorded as freedmen in the Dawes rolls. Roy Baldridge, J.D.'s son, said that for the Dawes Commission, "if you had a drop of black blood, you were black."

"That's false," said Smith, the Cherokee chief. "I think there was not a fixed policy that if you were dark, you were put on the freedmen roll."

Still, whether people were listed as Indians or freedmen, they were, under the 1866 treaty, considered citizens of the Cherokee Nation. Today's vote could revoke that designation for freedmen.

The census recorded about 20,000 freedmen for the five tribes, said Angela Y. Walton-Raji, a genealogist whose research has been seminal for freedmen tracing their roots.

Descendants of those freed tribal slaves would number in the hundreds of thousands today, Walton-Raji said.

But segregation and the civil rights movement separated native members of the tribes from freedmen. Today, no more than a few thousand descendants of the slaves are officially members of the five tribes, leaving their prospects of defeating the Cherokee referendum slim. By late last month, about 2,800 had re-registered in time to vote.

"A lot of Cherokees don't know who the freedmen are," Smith said. Did he, growing up? "No."

The Cherokee Nation expelled many descendants of slaves in 1983 by requiring them to show a degree of Indian blood through the Dawes rolls. A tribal court reinstated them in March 2006. That spurred today's special election, which received a go-ahead Feb. 21 when a federal judge in Washington denied the freedmen's request for an injunction to halt the balloting.

Why do the Cherokee non-freedmen want to expel the freedmen? The most obvious reason is money: The number of persons who might claim tribal status is unknown, and the tribe has a limited grant from the federal government. Another reason is a concern that the influx of a large number of previously unknown members will change the distinctive character of the Cherokee nation:
Advocates of expelling the freedmen call it a matter of safeguarding tribal resources, which include a $350 million annual budget from federal and tribal revenue, and Cherokees' share of a gambling industry that, for U.S. tribes overall, takes in $22 billion a year. The grass-roots campaign for expulsion has given heavy play to warnings that keeping freedmen in the Cherokee Nation could encourage thousands more to sign up for a slice of the tribal pie.

"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."


It is worth noting that if the issue were the United States' own immigration and naturalization policies, these sentiments would be just as troubling (and just as racist). The Cherokee Nation, despite its name, however, is no longer a fully independent nation in the sense that it once was before white settlement, but rather a "domestic dependent nation" retaining certain limited attributes of sovereignty. One of those remaining attributes is the right of determination of who is in the tribal community and who is not.

The United States has imposed on itself-- in the Fourteenth Amendment-- significant limitations on who can be expelled from membership in the community of American citizens (although Congress, for example, has refused to recognize the citizenship of some children born of American fathers overseas.). The Cherokee have given themselves a much freer hand to determine who is a Cherokee and who may therefore be legally expelled from their nation. (Although the proposed change is technically an amendment to the Cherokee Constitution, the procedure for enacting the change-- basically a referendum-- is far less difficult than amending the U.S. Constitution).

It is also worth noting that the 1866 Treaty which recognized the former slaves of the Cherokee as members of the Cherokee Nation came the same year as the Civil Rights Act of 1866, in which the Reconstruction Congress declared that the former slaves in this country were American citizens. Because of doubts about the Act's constitutionality, the Congress then pushed through the Fourteenth Amendment, whose first sentence-- the Citizenship Clause-- declares that "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

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.

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.



Comments:

I think this is a disgusting and shameful display of racism, xenophobia and greed. As you say, if the Cherokee nation were concerned merely about fraud, then they'd be voting to do something less than expelling all of the Freedman. It especially bothers me that many of these freedmen could themselves be as Cherokee as any member of the tribe, and yet be unable to prove so thanks to the arbitrary racism of census takers. For their ancestry and their service as slaves, they'll be booted out of the tribe as if they were merely parasites.
 

This controversy is yet the latest example of why racial or ethnic preferences of any kind for any reason are absurd.

We are Americans - PERIOD. This is the only approach with will keep a racially and ethnically diverse people united.
 

Actually that kind of approach that buries the differences and pretends they don't exist just exacerbates the problem. Ask the French; that's why their minorities ended up rioting in the streets.

I just want to say that this article is a little hyperbolic, and I feel that it's important to mention that this is not legislation proposed by tribal council members. Under Cherokee law, anyone can propose a law and call a vote on it if they gather enough signitures of registered voters. That's what happened here, and the petition only had 3,000 names on it out of the 190,000 Cherokees who belong to the Cherokee nation. Unfortunately, politics being politics this travesty may be allowed through anyway.

As another point of clarification, anyone with Cherokee blood will still be a citizen. It's not exactly a white/black issue. It's a Cherokee/non-Cherokee issue, even if the only reason some of those non-Cherokees are so because of racist roll-takers. But then, those guys were white so what do you expect?

Anyway, there are two enrolled members of the Cherokee nation I know of (me and Xanthippas) who absolutely do not agree with this.
 

There was an investigative report that aired on a local LA station a few weeks ago. The Pechanga Indian tribe "disenrolled" approximately 220 adult members (each of whom was receiving a $240,000/year casino allowance). The tribe decided simply to ignore the independent anthropologist they hired who found that one family of 90 had roots back over 100 years and was certainly Pechanga Indian.

What amazed me about the story is that the disenfranchised tribal members apparently have no legal recourse to challenge their membership ruling outside the tribe.

A very interesting read:
http://www.nbc4.tv/investigations/11067511/detail.html
 

The Cherokee nation, and any other nation has the right to set policy and determine who is a member. Is it really any different than other groups that determine membership?

You can only belong to the nation of doctors (and many other professions) if you pass the membership requirements setup by the existing members. It's not enough to demonstrate competence by passing an exam--if you haven't gone to a school approved by the doctors, then you can't even take the exam.

My grandfather took law via correspondence course and then passed the bar. He successfully practiced for many years. Today, he wouldn't even be allowed to take the bar exam because he didn't attend an accredited law school. Many economists will argue that one function of professional assosciations is to promote the economic intersets of its members.

Of course, there are many other benefits of having qualified professionals. But the point is, the professionals get to decide who meets the standard.
 

"Is it really any different than other groups that determine membership?"

Uhm, yes, if you suddenly decide that black people who have been "doctors" for years are suddenly not "doctors" anymore.

"What's wrong with the 'one drop' rule in conjunction with personal choice?"

Perhaps the fact that the "one drop rule" is a racist invention of white paranoia that has no basis in Cherokee culture or history until it was forced on the Nation by the Dawes Commission. The "one drop" rule is predicated on the notion that the "inferior blood" of "lesser races" contaminates "pure" white people. It is a tool for racial separation and has no place in a democracy like the Cherokee Nation.
 

I just want to say that this article is a little hyperbolic, and I feel that it's important to mention that this is not legislation proposed by tribal council members. Under Cherokee law, anyone can propose a law and call a vote on it if they gather enough signitures of registered voters. That's what happened here, and the petition only had 3,000 names on it out of the 190,000 Cherokees who belong to the Cherokee nation. Unfortunately, politics being politics this travesty may be allowed through anyway.

I read this to mean the proposal was unlikely to pass. Sad to report, it did.
 

"We are Americans - PERIOD. This is the only approach with will keep a racially and ethnically diverse people united."

No offense, but perhaps you can see how strange that argument sounds applied to Indian issues? What about the America BEFORE October, 1492? The one that had existed for tens of thousands of years? No one invited white Europeans to this continent, yet they came, stole all the land, killed 95% of the people, then (especially in the United States) systematically tried to destroy the culture of the survivors by kidnapping and brainwashing their children, rounding them up into concentration camps torturing, forcibly sterilizing women, and killing them when they resisted. In that light, "One Nation Under God," sounds more like a threat than a promise.
 

As an African American with Cherokee ancestors on both sides, it never occured to me to enroll as a member of the Cherokee Nation. My culture is predominantly African American, which includes African, Cherokee, and European ancestry. We celebrate the different parts of our heritage as one body. And we never vote anyone out of the tribe.

The Cherokee people should know that no vote can change the blood in my veins or in the veins of millions of others like me.

I long for the day when all the "Nations" subject their members to a DNA test. It would be ironic if the people who voted the Freedmen out actually have less Cherokee blood than the ones they expelled.
 

"I long for the day when all the 'Nations' subject their members to a DNA test. It would be ironic if the people who voted the Freedmen out actually have less Cherokee blood than the ones they expelled."

That would indeed be ironic, but I personally long for the day that Indians stop relying on racist white doctrines like blood quanta (which was designed to cause tribes to go extinct) or the "one drop" rule.
 

It really is interesting how racism is internalized by the very victims of it, particularly how bureaucratic systems propagandized as helping the minority often simply stabilizes and propagates the previous racist reality. Another example is the "Is Obama black enough?" idea, as some black politicians/academics seek to advantage themselves in a way that is fairly clearly not in the interest of the black community as a whole.

This incident does have an analogy with affirmative action, as much as I hate to agree with Bart in even the slightest ( ;) ). In this case, the community goal is, first and foremost, keeping the community alive as a cultural and linguistic entity. That could be best advanced by requiring marginal members of the community to show their commitment by speaking the language and being involved in the community - not expelling some marginal members, and keeping others without a significant attempt to educate them in the community culture.

In a similar way, the goal of affirmative action is to make up for past injustice. By focusing primarily on skin color, and not social class, affirmative action is "wasted" on people with little evidence of historical injustice, and misses many folks who could be strong allies in continuing these programs.
 

By focusing primarily on skin color, and not social class, affirmative action is "wasted" on people with little evidence of historical injustice, and misses many folks who could be strong allies in continuing these programs.

I agree that class inequalities are a problem in our society and the myth of class mobility is just that, however I can't ignore results like those obtained in the "Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?" study.

If people aren't given a callback for a job for no other reason than that their name sounds too "black" or "ethnic," the problem can't be simply relocated from race/ethnicity to class. Neither can we declare everyone an American (or racism to exist only in the minds of its victims) and move on, unless everyone is willing to move on at the same time.
 

PMS_Chicago,

As a practical tactic, focusing on class rather than ethnicity might get more remuneration in the hands that need it, rather than fighting the current losing battle. Yes, racism is alive and well - but it's tough to convince many white folks that that is the case. But, by pulling in the white working class, you might get more benefits to minorities that need them (rather than having it reversed on a state by state basis), and get some more social equality in the process.

In other words, racism has stayed healthy in part by pitting poor whites against their natural allies. The supporters of anti-racism need to undermine this dynamic.
 

Who is "pitting poor whites against their natural allies"?

Conservatives who oppose affirmative action and try to convince people that affirmative action harms them.
 

Shag,

Are you joking? Or are you just a-historical, believing that the past is dead? I don't even know how to start with someone who claims ignorance of the multi-century process of pitting poor whites against their black neighbors. It goes from slavery foremen through lynchings and the civil rights battles to the hysterics about "welfare queens" and illegal aliens. But none of it makes sense without context, which can't be filled in with a blog comment.
 

Shag,

I meant allies economically, so yes, similar economic conditions make them natural allies - a more equitable distribution of wealth would help both sides more, while inequity hurt both groups, even if it hurts blacks more than whites. Jobs being shifted overseas, lax organization laws, all of these would interest both communities, if it wasn't that local and national politicians exploit old racial fears (Willy Horton, anyone?)

The fact that a lot of poor whites basically live in fantasy worlds doesn't change the economic facts. This pitting has been consciously done by the Dems til the sixties, and since the '70s by the Reps (Recall the "Southern Strategy"?). Of course, you're right that it is embedded through out our culture ("Us, society"), but there are clearly some that benefit more, that are more invested in continuing this system, primarily the wealthier in multi-racial communities - which is why strong discrimination laws were first lost in New Hampshire, not in Alabama.

Once you just start blaming "culture," you become helpless. There are organizations and individuals to blame. We just saw a few months ago the Senatorial election in Va. revolve around this very issue. But as long as poor whites have little hope of improvement as a community, they'll ally against other poor communities out of short term self-interest.
 

"Actually that kind of approach that buries the differences and pretends they don't exist just exacerbates the problem. Ask the French; that's why their minorities ended up rioting in the streets."

Slightly off topic, but it's late in the thread so here goes. It was because Muslims and other North Africans in France have not assimilated--by their choice. France welcomed anyone who wanted to come to France and be French. Many North Africans came to France to be North Africans living in France, living seperately from their French neighbors. When you isolate yourself, you lose opportunities.
 

"It was because Muslims and other North Africans in France have not assimilated--by their choice."

See, and we had hoped all y'all white folks would assimilate once you got here to Turtle Island but, well, you can see how well that worked out.
 

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