Cherokees accused of racist plot as descendants of black slaves are cast out
Cherokees voted yesterday to expel descendants of black slaves they once owned, a move that has exposed the unsavoury role played by some Native Americans during the Civil War and renewed accusations of racism against the tribe.
Members of the Cherokee Nation, the second largest Native American tribe, voted by 77 per cent to 23 in a special election to amend their constitution and limit citizenship to those listed as “Cherokee by blood”.
The move stripped tribal membership from freedmen – those descended from slaves – and blacks who were married to Cherokees. They have enjoyed full citizenship rights for 141 years.
Opponents of the vote denounced it as a racist plot to deny tribal revenue – which includes $22 billion a year from casino takings for all US tribes – to those not deemed full-blood Cherokee, and to block them from claiming a slice of the tribal pie.
Supporters say that it was a long-overdue move by Cherokees to determine their own tribal make-up. Freedmen were granted full tribal membership under an 1866 treaty that the tribe was essentially forced to sign with the US Government after the Civil War ended.
The vote has reopened a lesser-known chapter in Native American history – the fact that some of the country’s largest tribes sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War – and the intra-tribal racial tensions that have persisted since Emancipation.
Cherokees, Choctaws, Chicksaws, Creeks and Seminoles were known as the Five Civilised Tribes because they adopted many of the ways of the Confederate South, including the ownership of black slaves. The election has also high-lighted the massive gambling revenues many tribes now enjoy because, as “sovereign nations”, they are free to build casinos on tribal lands in a country where gambling is largely illegal.
The vote limits citizenship to those who can trace their heritage to a “Cherokee by blood” list, part of the Dawes Rolls census created by Congress in 1906. Under that census, anybody with a trace of African-American blood – even if they were half Cherokee – was placed on the freedmen roll. Those with full Cherokee or mixed white and Cherokee ancestry – even if seventh eighths white – were put on the “Cherokee by blood” roll.
Today about 25,000 of the 270,000 Cherokees are descendants of freedmen, but the tribe is growing rapidly with new citizens enrolling each month. Members are entitled to a share of the $350 million annual budget from federal and tribal revenue, housing and medical support.
Those who want to expel the freedmen have said that, without the vote, thousands more descendants would seek to cash in on the tribe’s revenue and welfare network. “Don’t get taken advantage of by these people. They will suck you dry,” wrote Darren Buzzard in a widely circulated e-mail last year. “Don’t let black freedmen back you into a corner. Protect Cherokee culture for our children.”
Chad Smith, the tribe’s principal chief, said that about 8,700 people had voted in the special election, more than the turnout for the Cherokee constitution vote four years ago. “Their voice is clear as to who should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation. No one else has the right to make that determination.” But Taylor Keen, a tribal council member, said: “This is a sad chapter in Cherokee history. This is not my Cherokee Nation. My Cherokee Nation is one that honours all parts of her past.”
Marilyn Vann, president of the Oklahoma City-based Descendants of Freedmen of Five Civilised Tribes, said: “I’m very disappointed that people bought into a lot of rhetoric and falsehoods by tribal leaders.” Although most tribal issues are dealt with by Cherokee courts, the freedmen have vowed to challenge the vote in federal courts. They have precedent on their side.
In 2000 the Seminole Nation expelled freedmen. But the federal Government, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and federal courts, refused to recognise the Seminoles as a sovereign nation. Faced with such a loss of status, they took the freedmen back.
The petition drive for the Cherokee ballot measure followed a ruling by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court last March confirming that the 1866 treaty assured citizenship to freedmen descendants. Since then, more than 2,000 freedmen descendants have enrolled as citizens of the tribe. Members of the tribe received many election mailings attacking “nonIndians” as thieves who would create queues in health clinics and welfare centres.
But the vote means that, like the Seminole, the Cherokee risk losing their tribal sovereignty, Jon Velie, a lawyer for Seminole and Cherokee freedmen, told the New York Times. “There is a racial schism in Indian Country that is growing and getting worse.”
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