Tim Giago: Cherokee Nation votes out Freedmen

After she and 2,800 descendants of slaves once owned by the Cherokee Nation were denied membership or disenrolled from the tribe, Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma said, “We’re not going away. We are calling on the American people to bombard Congress, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, all media outlets, that justice be done.”

Vann was referring to a special election held last week on the Cherokee Nation in which 77 percent of the eligible voters removed them as members of the tribe. The vote followed a petition drive for a ballot measure to determine who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Principal Chief Chad Smith said after the election that the vote was not about race, but represented a right of self-government to decide who is a member of the nation. “My roll as Principal Chief was to bring the issue of citizenship to a vote. Determination of citizenship is the decision of the people, not the Principal Chief, not the tribal council and not the court.”

Smith said, “The Cherokee People spoke clearly that as long as you had a Cherokee ancestor on our base roll of 1906, it did not matter what other blood, race or appearance you have.” He accused Vann of trying to play the race card, “But it did not work because we know we have thousands of citizens who look Black, white, Hispanic or Asian,” he said.

Columnist Tommy Felts of the Coffeyville (Kansas) Journal was outraged over the election results. He wrote, “A victim of one of the worst chapters in American history, the Cherokee Nation has lost the moral high ground.”

Felts continued, “These are the people whose ancestors were forced from their land, denied civil rights and treated as worthless dregs unfit for life within the new society. With their stunning vote the Cherokee have put their black and mixed-race brethren on a path toward the same fate.”

Although the freedmen will lose their tribal rights they will not be forced marched to a new location. And they will not lose their property or their jobs. But the vote of the Cherokee people does bring up a matter of self-government and sovereignty.

The Indian people were herded on to reservations and denied the most basic of human rights. They had no control over their government, they had no freedom of the press, and they had not control over their finances. Everything they owned was placed into “trust” by the Department of the Interior and the Indian people were designated as “wards” of the United States and deemed incapable of making the very decisions that impacted every avenue of their daily lives. And that included decisions of health, education, welfare, self-government, law enforcement or justice.

Every tribe from the Navajo Nation to the tribes of the Lakota and Dakota speaking nations fought tooth and nail to recover the basic rights of freedom and independence that had been their inherent rights since time immemorial.

It took thousands of dollars and thousands of hours in order for the Indian nations to regain a semblance of those basic rights. They fought their way through the local federal courts and oftentimes reached the U. S. Supreme Court in their valiant fight to establish their status as sovereign nations. Many died as patriots of their nations in establishing these rights.

At one time not so long ago tribal membership was established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs without consideration of the rights of the different tribes. Oftentimes the very people charged with this responsibility skewered these rights of citizenship. The Richard Nixon Administration passed legislation known as the Indian Education and Self-Determination Act in the mid-1970s that sought to re-establish sovereignty amongst the Indian nations.

The legal ability to determine actions that impact the very future of the tribes now rests in the hands of the duly elected tribal governments. Each tribe has set its own criteria for membership. In some cases this has meant hardships for innocent victims that have been removed from the tribal rolls by decision of the tribal council. This is particularly evident amongst the many Indian tribes in California.

There are times when persons of Indian ancestry cannot meet the strict criteria established by the tribe for membership and even though they may have what they consider to be legitimate claims, the decision as to whether they can be enrolled is entirely in the hands of the tribal government. And like the Cherokee Nation, most tribes go back to their original rolls and an applicant must prove a direct relationship to those original tribal members.

Some members that have been denied membership or that have been disenrolled blame the situation on greed. They claim that the tribe is diminishing tribal membership because they do not want to dilute the income they receive from their casinos. In some cases this may be the truth.

The Cherokee Nation has been particularly vulnerable because so many non-Indians claim membership in the tribe. I don’t know how many times non-Indians have approached me after I give a speech and tell me, “My grandmother was a Cherokee princess.”

Granted there are many African Americans with Indian blood that are not enrolled members of any Indian tribe. They speak of their Indian blood with great pride. But the Indian nations, in order to protect themselves, have set down hard rules and regulations that determine membership. It is an inherent right they have fought for centuries to retain and it is too bad that some claimants to membership fall through the cracks, but if they lose out because of dishonest tribal leadership that brings up a whole different set of circumstances.

But as an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Nation I must stand behind the rights of the Cherokee Nation to determine its own membership.

McClatchy News Service in Washington, DC distributes Tim Giago’s weekly column. He can be reached at najournalists@rushmore.com. Giago was also the founder and former editor and publisher of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the class of 1990 – 1991. Clear Light Books of Santa Fe, NM (harmon@clearlightbooks.com) published his latest book, “Children Left Behind."

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