Cherokees accused of racism by black tribesmen
SEAN MURPHY AND EVELYN NIEVES
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
BLACK members of the Cherokee have said they will take their fight to court after they were voted out of the tribe in a controversial ballot which has left the Native American group facing charges of racism.
In last weekend's special election, more than 76 per cent of voters decided to amend the Cherokee Nation's constitution to remove an estimated 2,800 freedmen - the descendents of slaves owned by the Cherokee - from the tribal rolls.
The ejected members will lose their vote, as well as access to such tribal benefits as healthcare, housing and scholarships from a £150 million budget.
Marilyn Vann, the president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilised Tribes, said the election results undoubtedly will be challenged.
"We will pursue the legal remedies that are available to us to stop people from not only losing their voting rights, but to receiving medical care and other services to which they are entitled under law," Ms Vann said.
"This is a fight for justice to stop these crimes against humanity."
Ms Vann contends that many black members of the Cherokee have Cherokee blood - as the tribal leaders well know.
"There are freedmen who can prove they have a full-blooded Cherokee grandfather who won't be members. And there are blond people who are 1/1,000th Cherokee who are members."
Prominent black Americans with Cherokee blood include the singer Tina Turner and the late rock legend Jimi Hendrix.
Charlene White, a descendant of freed Cherokee slaves who were adopted into the tribe in 1866 under a treaty with the US government, wondered where she would now go for the glaucoma treatment she has received at a tribal hospital.
"I've got to go back to the doctor, but I don't know if I can go back to the clinic or if they're going to oust me right now," said Ms White, 56, who is disabled and lives on a fixed income.
Mike Miller, a Cherokee Nation spokesman, said that election results would not be finalised at least until after 12 March. Services that are being received by freedmen descendants will not immediately be suspended, he said.
"There isn't going to be some sort of sudden stop of a service that's ongoing," Mr Miller said. "There will be some sort of transition period so that people understand what's going on."
Chad Smith, Cherokee Nation's principal chief, said he was pleased with the turnout and with the election result.
"Their voice is clear as to who should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation," Mr 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."
The petition drive for the ballot measure followed a ruling last March by the Cherokee Nation's supreme court that said an 1866 treaty assured freedmen descendants of tribal citizenship. A similar situation occurred in 2000, when the Seminole Nation voted to cast freedmen descendants out of its tribe, said Jon Velie, a legal expert on Indian law who has represented freedmen descendants in previous cases.
"The United States, when posed the same situation with the Seminoles, would not recognise the election and they ultimately cut off most federal programmes to the Seminoles," Mr Velie said. "They also determined the Seminoles, without this relationship with the government, were not authorised to conduct gaming."
Casinos make up a huge majority of the income of Native American tribes, totalling some £11 billion annually.
Ultimately, the Seminole freedmen were allowed back into the tribe, Mr Velie said.
He said the vote already has hurt the tribe's public perception. "It's throwback, old-school racist rhetoric," Mr Velie said.
Mr Miller, the tribal spokesman, defended the Cherokees against charges of racism.
"I think it's actually the opposite. To say that the Cherokee Nation is intolerant or racist ignores the fact that we have an open dialogue and have the discussion," he said.
1906 census that set the scene for bitter dispute of 2007
AT THE centre of the decision to exclude the descendants of slaves from the Cherokee tribe are two lists drawn up more than a century ago.
Those who voted for the expulsion are attempting to limit citizenship of the tribe to those who can trace their heritage to "Cherokee by blood" registers, part of a census known as the Dawes Rolls of 1906.
When the Dawes Rolls - a census commissioned by the United States Congress to distribute land to tribal members - were created, those with any African blood were put on the Freedmen register, even if they were half Cherokee.
Those with mixed-white and Cherokee ancestry, even if they were seven-eighths white and one-eighth Cherokee, were put on the Cherokee-by-blood roll.
More than 75 per cent of those enrolled in the Cherokee Nation have less than a quarter Cherokee blood, the vast majority being of European ancestry.