I said before that I was going to comment on my own reactions to the Cherokee Freedmen dispute, but I was having trouble finding a point of entry. I admit my first response on hearing about the vote was disappointment with the Cherokees. Despite the protests of Cherokees and the conclusions of the AIPMI report, I saw it the same way many in the mainstream media did, as racism. Researching the background did little to change my initial reactions.
Yet I was still wary. I do have some Cherokee ancestry, but I have never identified myself with the tribe or participated in their community. And the Cherokees, and all Native Americans, have understandably had enough of outsiders’ judgments of what is best for them. I can very well understand the sensitivity of a people whose history has been characterized by repeated abuse and betrayal from white Americans and the U.S. government.
Though the uneasiness remains, I was spurred to finally comment on it by an op-ed from Kevin Noble Maillard in Indian Country Today:
Tribal life for Black Indians can be difficult. Mixed-blood Indians have been told to ”go back to Africa.” Tribal meetings escalate to roaring sessions of racist rhetoric, with animal noises, stomping feet and cow calls for ”blacks to get the hell out.” Blatant proponents of exclusion have no shame in publicly declaring, ”We’re trying to keep the black people out.”
While such behavior has been shunned since the civil rights era, it thrives in some parts of Indian country. This is sovereignty.
Maillard goes on to point out that the very idea of “Indian blood” was invented by, as he puts it, “white Northeasterners on vacation,” to help break up tribal land into individual plots. It is a sad irony that the Cherokees today point to the Dawes Roll as their defining mark of identity, when at its creation it was rightfully seen as a severe blow to Indian sovereignty and tribal customs.
The exclusion of anyone who honestly has grown up identifying as Indian and participating in the community is a travesty, and to base it on blood rules invented by white men in the 19th Century is the definition of racism. As Maillard writes:
The journey of the Allotment Act from a destructive policy conceived by whites to an irreproachable doctrine fortified by Indians is nothing short of a remarkable transformation. This dogged loyalty to membership rolls and blood quantum confounds the idea of self-determination and self-identification. In relying on these papers as a prerogative of liberty and a symbol of independence, tribes fail to escape the state power they claim to be sovereign from.
In a video interview with the Cherokee Phoenix, Prinicipal Chief Smith does not come off as a sympathetic figure. In a classic bit of politician double-speak, he describes the referendum as “vote of inclusion, not exclusion,” because it includes those with demonstrated Indian blood. The case can certainly be made that excluding Freedmen is appropriate to protect the identity of the tribe, but to spin it based on a totally misleading premise puts even the defensible justifications into doubt. If he cannot honestly make his case, perhaps the accusations of racism are not off the mark.
Whatever the tragedies and extenuating circumstances of history, in this case we can know an injustice when we see it.