Cherokees disown slave descendants
By Tim Reid
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
CHEROKEES will expel descendants of black slaves they once owned, a move that has exposed the unsavoury role played by some Native Americans during the Civil War and renewed accusations of racism against the tribe.
Members of the Cherokee Nation, the second-largest Native American tribe, voted yesterday by 77 per cent to 23 per cent in a special poll to amend their constitution and limit citizenship to those listed as "Cherokee by blood". The move stripped tribal membership from freedmen - those descended from slaves - and blacks who were married to Cherokees. They have enjoyed full citizenship rights for 141 years.
Opponents denounced it as a racist plot to deny tribal revenue - including $US22billion ($37billion) a year from casino takings for all US tribes - to those not deemed full-blood Cherokee, and to block them from claiming a slice of the tribal pie.
Supporters say it was a long overdue move by Cherokees to determine their own tribal make-up. Freedmen were granted full tribal membership under an 1866 treaty that the tribe was essentially forced to sign with the US government after the Civil War.
The vote has reopened a lesser-known chapter in Native American history - that some of the country's largest tribes sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War - and the intratribal racial tensions that have persisted since emancipation.
Cherokees, Choctaws, Chicksaws, Creeks and Seminoles were known as the Five Civilised Tribes because they adopted many of the ways of the Confederate South, including owning black slaves.
The election has also highlighted the massive gambling revenues many tribes now enjoy.
The vote limits citizenship to those who can trace their heritage to a "Cherokee by blood" list, part of the Dawes Rolls census created by Congress in 1906.
Under that census, anybody with even a trace of African-American blood was placed on the freedmen roll. Those with full Cherokee or mixed white and Cherokee ancestry, even if seventh-eighths white, were put on the "Cherokee by blood" roll.
Today about 25,000 of the 270,000 Cherokees are descendants of freedmen, but the tribe is growing rapidly, with 1000 new citizens a month entitled to a share of the $US350 million annual budget.
Those in favour of expelling the freedmen have said that, without the vote, thousands more descendants will seek tribal membership to cash in on its revenue and welfare network.
Chad Smith, the tribe's principal chief, said about 8700 people had voted in the special poll, more than the turnout for the Cherokee constitution vote four years ago.
"Their voice is clear as to who should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation," he said. "No one else has the right to make that determination."
But tribal council member Taylor Keen said: "This is a sad chapter in Cherokee history. This is not my Cherokee Nation. My Cherokee Nation is one that honours all parts of her past."
The freedmen have vowed to challenge the vote in court. They have precedent on their side.
In 2000, the Seminole Nation expelled freedmen. But the federal Government, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and federal courts, refused to recognise them as a sovereign nation.
Faced with such a loss of status, they took the freedmen back.