Cherokees to vote on bloodlines
By Hugh Aynesworth
Saturday, March 03, 2007
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. -- Thousands of Cherokees are expected to go to the polls today in a special election to settle an issue that has long divided the nation's second-largest Indian tribe -- whether to require Indian blood for tribal membership.
If the amendment is approved, it would remove thousands of descendants of freed slaves or "freedmen" from membership in the Cherokee Nation.
Tribal leaders say the group's constitution always has been vague about who is and who is not a Cherokee.
"This will clear that up," said Jodie Fishinghawk, a restaurant owner from Westville and a supporter of the amendment.
"Not necessarily," said Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, whose members likely would be ousted if the amendment passes.
"We're not going to quit, not going to simply slink off, because we're fighting to keep things that are legally ours," said Mrs. Vann, who traces her tribal lineage back to 1835. "And they have played the race card, no doubt about it."
The Cherokee Nation has its own judiciary and an active business corporation that -- through its earnings from casino gambling and other enterprises -- has helped turn the once-poor tribe into one that funds schools, clinics and hospitals. It also is the recipient of federal funding -- about $300 million annually, according to tribe officials.
Today's election deals only with whether several thousand people who claim to be descendants of early tribe members, those who married tribesmen of that era or slaves who were once owned by wealthy tribesmen in the 1800s, can be called Cherokees.
"It's simple," said Mrs. Fishinghawk, who is half Cherokee. "To be an Indian, you've got to have Indian blood."
Mrs. Vann, one of the plaintiffs in a pending federal lawsuit, claims most of those who would be excluded by the amendment's passage are those who cannot prove their lineage because of an investigation in the late 1800s that made no attempt to accurately chart the bloodlines.
Nevertheless, she said, many have since been considered to be Cherokees -- particularly because of a treaty between the Indians and the U.S. government in 1866 that stated in part that "never hereafter shall either slavery or involuntary servitude exist" in the Cherokee Nation and that "all freedmen who have been liberated ... as well as all free colored persons ... and their descendants, shall have all the rights of native Cherokees."
Mike Miller, spokesman for the Cherokee Nation, said he had heard accusations by some that the amendment might be "racist" but he said the proponents -- who included tribal leaders -- simply were attempting to strengthen the Cherokee constitution. "Our constitution, apparently, is kind of vague because our Supreme Court has decided two different ways what it means," Mr. Miller said. "In 2001 they said the constitution required Indian blood and in 2006 they reversed themselves."
Other tribes have had similar purges of their ranks, such as when the Seminole freedmen were ousted in 2000.
Jonathan Velie, lead counsel for the Cherokee freedmen, was involved in legal action that resulted from the 2000 purge.
He said the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has vacillated throughout.
"The BIA will go part of the way and then it stops and it looks the other way part of the time. And what we have is a segregated world for these black Indians. Even with the Seminoles, where they are back in the tribe, they don't have any benefits from being in the tribe," Mr. Velie said.
"In the Cherokee situation they can't hold political office; they can't vote. Now they're gonna get kicked out ... and if they do get back in, what they'll be able to have is at question," he said.