Cherokee Nation votes to remove descendants of Freedmen
Sheila K. Stogsdill
Saturday, March 03, 2007
TAHLEQUAH — Cherokee Nation members Saturday overwhelmingly voted to remove descendants of freedmen from their tribe.
With nearly all precincts reporting, 76.6 percent voted to amend the nation's constitution. According to the tribe's Web site, 6,693 voted for the amendment and 2,040 voted against it.
John Ketcher, the tribe's former deputy chief and organizer of the petition that got the amendment to a vote, said Saturday will go down as one of the biggest chapters in Cherokee history.
"I think it will be very important ... for our children and our grandchildren,” he said. "Hopefully they won't have to face this problem again. Those with Cherokee blood are still welcome in our Cherokee Nation.
"I'm going to sleep good.”
At issue was whether to remove descendants of freedmen, who were slaves adopted into the tribe after the Civil War, from the tribal roll.
Tribal spokesman Mike Miller said turnout was greater than an election in 2003, in which voters elected a deputy chief and approved the current constitution.
Freedmen were made tribal citizens in 1866. In 1975, Cherokees voted to exclude them and their descendants. But the tribe's highest court in March 2006 granted them rights.
Since then, about 2,700 descendants of freedmen have enrolled. Some numbers indicate there are about 42,000 unregistered descendants.
Supporters of the amendment turned in more than 3,000 signatures, and 2,217 were ruled valid, to get it on the ballot. About 2,090 were needed.
There are more than 250,000 Cherokees in the nation.
The amendment read that citizenship would be limited to descendants of original enrollees of Cherokee blood, Delaware blood or Shawnee blood as listed on the Dawes Commission Rolls of 1906. The amendment stated it would take away citizenship and deny citizenship to those who are solely descendants of those on either the Dawes Commissions Intermarried Whites or Freedmen rolls.
Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, said she will announce a challenge next week. The deadline is March 12.
"We are not going to accept this fraudulent election,” she said. "The outcome of this vote was manufactured by (Principal Chief) Chad Smith.”
All the people listed on the Dawes Rolls should be part of the tribe, she said. Vann and others have said the election will not get rid of everyone without blood lineage and will remove some who do have Cherokee blood.
Vann said she was disappointed the people were not able to see past what she called rhetoric and fear mongering.
"The majority (of the Cherokee people) know very little about the tribe's history, they look to their leaders for information,” Vann said. "With sufficient time we could have educated the people to what the election really was about.”
Smith said the turnout was unexpectedly high. He said that shows it was an issue close to the heart of Cherokees.
"Their voice is clear as to who should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation,” Smith said. "No one else has the right to make that determination. It was a right of self-government, affirmed in 23 treaties with Great Britain and the United States and paid dearly with 4,000 lives on the Trail of Tears.”
In Jay, along the downtown stretch of U.S. 59 that runs in front of the Jay Community Center, signs were everywhere urging passage of the amendment.
"I do not want to change the constitution,” said Dian Wadley of Eucha just before entering the Jay Community Center. "Now you know how I am going to vote.”
"I don't want them to be able to vote,” said Phyllis Baker, a Jay schoolteacher. "It strictly should be Cherokees.”
The descendants of freedmen want all the rights and privileges of being a Cherokee, even if they have no Cherokee blood, she said.
"We believe by blood only,” said Baker, who was there with her brother, Tom Plummer, of Disney.
A Cherokee marshal was stationed at every precinct Saturday to make sure there were no problems.