Next month, members of the Cherokee Nation will vote on whether to amend the tribal constitution to make Indian blood a requirement for citizenship. American Indian tribes are considered sovereign nations within the United States, and their citizens are entitled to tribal benefits, including subsidized housing and health care. At issue in the March 3 vote is the status of thousands of descendants of African slaves once owned by tribal members. The people known as Cherokee freedmen say a 140-year-old treaty protects their citizenship in the Cherokee Nation. The story raises questions about Native American identity, race and justice.
The Cherokee tribe has always been one of the largest in the United States. Two centuries ago it was also once one of the wealthiest. Some of its members held more than 100 slaves on plantations in the south. In recent times, though, many Cherokee have lived in deep poverty. That situation is gradually improving, with the success of tribal casinos. Profits from these gambling operations are funding modern health clinics, like one rising from the countryside near Muskogee, Oklahoma.
With the Cherokee's financial picture brightening somewhat and a tribal ruling in their favor, freedmen such as Johnny Toomer, a forklift operator in Muskogee, have reasserted their claim to membership. Toomer says he hasn't been welcomed with open arms. "All I want to be done is done fairly and right. My ancestors received benefits and was done fairly. I want to be done fairly."
Toomer's great, great grandmother was the daughter of slaves held by the Cherokee. Her people likely walked to Oklahoma from Georgia in 1838 on the infamous Trail of Tears, a forced march under the U.S. government relocation policy that led to the death of nearly a fifth of the tribe.
Toomer says the proof of his claim is in the photocopied documents arrayed on his coffee table. His relative's name is on what's called the Dawes Rolls, a federal government list of Cherokees and members of four other tribes, who were living on
Indian lands around 1900. If you have a direct ancestor on the rolls, you're considered a member of the tribe. But a century ago, a bureaucrat noted that Toomer's great, great grandmother was a Cherokee freedman. It's that identification that now puts his tribal citizenship at risk. "Is it because of the color of my skin, [the] reason I'm not accepted?" he asks, adding that it seems that way to him.
A tribal court ruling last year forced the Cherokees to recognize Freedmen as citizens. That prompted Toomer and about 1,500 other Freedmen to sign up for membership cards. That sparked a referendum to amend the tribe's constitution and formally expel the Freedmen. "It's an Indian thing, we do not want non-Indians in the tribe," explains Jodie Fishinghawk, who helped lead the referendum drive. "Our Indian blood is what binds us together."
She notes that nearly all Indian nations require their citizens to be able to document direct ancestors in the tribe. Standards vary from nation to nation, and most are more stringent than the Cherokee. Fishinghawk says a tribe's right to set conditions of citizenship is fundamental to its sovereignty. "It's a democratic process, people are allowed to vote. That's what America is based on, that's what we use here in the Cherokee Nation. And I don't see any problem with it."
The Cherokee freedmen do. Because after fighting on the losing side in the American Civil War, the Cherokees signed a treaty guaranteeing their newly-freed slaves citizenship in the tribe. And the 1866 treaty's protection outweighs the tribe's claims of sovereignty on this issue, according to Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association.
"You know, there never was such a thing as the Cherokee race," she says, pointing out that the Cherokee tribe has always been a diverse nation, not a race. "Cherokee was a citizenship. Actually, it's safer for the tribe to say 'We are a nation of people.' If you keep saying you're a race.…" She shakes her head. "The federal government doesn't have government-to-government relations with races, only nations."
But this whole discussion of race really misses the point, according to Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith. Sitting in his office looking out at the sprawling tribal headquarters campus near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Smith said more people do want to be in the tribes these days. But it's not so much because of subsidized health care and housing. He says it's a search for tribal identity. "And it's easy to grasp and look to tribes, who are indigenous and have a sense of identity, and have sustained themselves through terrible times."
The Cherokee freedmen maintain that their ancestors helped sustain the tribe through the very worst of times. They argue that now that things have improved, they shouldn't have to fight to call themselves Cherokees.