In 2007, the Cherokee Nation amended its Constitution to limit citizenship to Cherokee “by blood,” saying this would prevent non-Indians from becoming citizens. But actually the amendment meant disenrolling about 2,800 freedmen descendants and nullifying the applications of about 3,500 more because the Nation’s Constitution requires descent from an individual on the Dawes Rolls.
The Dawes Rolls, compiled from 1898 to 1914, administered allotment. Recording the parentage and blood degree of Cherokee citizens, they separated the “freedmen” from the “Cherokee” by lineage and blood. This separation within the rolls reflected a racist belief that one could not be Cherokee andAfrican, a racism born of the Cherokee’s slave-holding history.
Several lawsuits contested the amendment’s validity in light of a Cherokee-U.S. treaty in 1866 that extended Cherokee citizenship to freedmen and their descendants. The Cherokee District Court agreed.
But on August 22, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court upheld the amendment. The court said that the Nation has the sole right to determine its citizenship. Principle Chief Chad Smith concurred, telling the Associated Press that Cherokee citizenship is not about politics or race: “It’s just a fundamental right of sovereignty.”
Without citizenship, freedmen descendants cannot vote in the September 24 run-off election for Principle Chief, pitting Smith against challenger Bill John Baker. Nor can they receive tribal benefits such as housing, healthcare, and education.
Freedmen descendants filed a motion in U.S. federal district court September 2 for an injunction to stop any election in which they are denied the right to vote. The hearing is set for September 20. Meanwhile, on September 7, HUD froze funds to the Nation until it can secure guidance on the freedmen’s situation. On September 13, the BIA ordered the Cherokee Nation to restore the freedmen descendants as full citizens and warned that the September 24 election would not be valid unless they were allowed to vote. As reported by the Washington Post: “I urge you to consider carefully the nation’s next steps in proceeding with an election that does not comply with federal law,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk wrote in letter Friday to acting Chief S. Joe Crittenden. “The department will not recognize any action taken by the nation that is inconsistent with these principles and does not accord its freedmen members full rights of citizenship.”
As a result, on September 14, the Nation announced that it would allow the freedmen descendants to cast provisional votes in the election. As reported by Forbes.com, the Chair of the Cherokee Nation Election Commission issued a statement that said that those who are registered to vote may cast their ballots. “If a court decides the freedmen descendants can vote we will have the ability to certify the election. If the court decides they cannot vote we will still be able to preserve the election.”
Defiantly, the Cherokee Nation will allow the freedmen descendants to vote but it appears their votes will be held provisionally pending further legal action.
Meanwhile, the campaign has gotten ugly. As reported by the Tahlequah Daily Press, this has included misleading information about Baker on fliers distributed by the Smith campaign.
See the New York Times: Room For Debate on the legal matters surrounding the Cherokee Freedmen, including participants: Carla Pratt, Matthew Fletcher, Cara Cowan Watts, Heather Williams, Tiya Miles, Rose C. Villazor, and Kevin Noble Maillard.
The True Meaning of Sovereignty
The controversy surrounding the Cherokee Nation’s “disenrollment” of Freedmen and their descendants underlines the unique legal rights and status of “Indian tribes” as well as the difficult historical confluence of racism within tribal governance and social politics.
Muddying these issues are anti-Indian pundits who use actions like that of the Cherokee as an opportunity to challenge tribal rights.
Many Cherokee have responded by dismissing the criticisms, asserting sovereignty as if it trumps race. They have even accused the Freedmen of not being Cherokee and of being out to destroy the nation, as Cherokee Nation Attorney General Diane Hammons said in a statement: “The important thing to notice is the direct attack by the non-Indian freedmen descendants on the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation, asking for the termination of the tribe’s existence.” Such remarks have invited federal authorities like H.U.D. to freeze annuities and services to the tribe, with threats of further legal action looming.
So the question is posed: Is a tribe that usurps civil rights prohibiting racial discrimination still sovereign?
The short answer is yes.
But it is not the right question. It is not whether or not tribal sovereignty supersedes racism, but what kind of sovereignty is being defined by tribes when they enact race-based discrimination.
The history of racism towards those of African and Cherokee descent within the Cherokee Nation is intimately tied up with the history of Cherokee slave-holding. This history was represented by the separation of the “freedmen” from “Cherokee” on the “Dawes Rolls.”
The Dawes Rolls, compiled from 1898 to 1914, administered allotment. Recording the parentage and blood degree of Cherokee citizens, they separated the “freedmen” from the “Cherokee” by lineage and blood. This separation reflected a racist belief that one could not be Cherokee and African, a racism born of the Cherokee’s slave-holding history.
The racism has been reinforced as several Cherokee officials – including Wilma Mankiller, Ross Schwimmer and Chad Smith – have denied Freedmen descendants’ citizenship in the service of their own political battles.
Racism is fueled toward Freedman descendants every time Cherokee dismisses concerns about the nation’s actions based on sovereignty. It is a racism that needs accountability – not as an amends of the past but as an address to the current relations among Cherokee people defined by the racist legacies of slavery. And the truth is that many Cherokee birthed children by slaves, inter-married with Africans and their descendants, and are of African descent.
Accountability is needed not merely because the Cherokee invite criticism and federal interference in their affairs by continuing to discriminate against Freedmen descendants, but because it is the culturally appropriate and ethically right thing to do.
At the end of the day, the sovereignty that tribal people claim is only as good as how they treat each other in its name.