who is an Indian

A recent Time Magazine article comes out strongly in favor of the Cherokee Freedmen. This point deserves reemphasizing:

When Cherokee voters decided to strip the Freedmen of their full membership they were essentially legitimizing the one-drop rule. At the turn of the 19th century, the U.S. government relied on that racist tool, originally used to determine whether people were black or not, in combination with other factors for a census of people living on Native American tribal lands. Those who seemed Cherokee, or Cherokee mixed with white, were placed on a “Cherokee-by-blood” list. Those who seemed black, or Cherokee mixed with black, were generally placed on a “Freedmen” list.

For all the rhetoric about protecting Cherokee identity based on the Dawes Rolls, it’s well worth remembering what those rolls originally represented. They were the tool of a racist American government used to divide up Indian lands, to disrupt tribal government and make it easier for whites move in. By evicting the Freedmen, the Cherokees have taken some of worst tactics of their oppressors as their own, and it will be a sad irony if the federal government has to intervene against it.

Time also points out a broader dynamic at play:

The question of who decides Indian identity affects not just the 2,800 or so Freedmen and 100 times as many Cherokee Nation citizens, but the half a million people who identified themselves on the last census as being of Cherokee heritage but not belonging to the Cherokee Nation — as well as, potentially, the more than 4.3 million Americans who consider themselves at least part American Indian and who could find themselves randomly booted from their tribes.

The question of Indian identity is extraordinarily complex, and every tribe has different rules. The Cherokees are actually one of the most permissive when it comes to tribal membership. They have no blood quantum requirements, so as long as you can prove at least one Cherokee ancestor you can join. Some citizens have only 1/4096 Indian ancestry. On the other extreme, to be a member of the Miccosukee tribe of Florida, your mother must have been a Miccosukee (similar to the traditions of Judaism).

For an Oklahoma Daily article last year I spoke to several American Indian students and faculty at OU, among them a student who was very active in the community, and whose father was full-blood Miccosukee, but who still could not join the tribe. Yet he knew that his culture and heritage were bigger than any legalistic parsing of blood quantum. He was an Indian. The Cherokee Freedmen have the right to say the same.

It is no coincidence that all of this is happening on the eve of Cherokee elections being held this weekend. But denying the Freedmen their citizenship, for the short-term political goals of Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith and others, will not change who they are.

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7 responses to “who is an Indian

  1. I’m have actually 1/32 Cherokee, and I have found this issue distressing. I seriously cannot understand how the Cherokee Nation can view this as anything but blatant racism. And yet we decry the white man’s stereotypes and the lack of Native American history in our school systems as oppression. I hate to see the Cherokee Nation lower themselves this way.

  2. Dear Sir, There are many of people like me that doesn’t know how to go about finding our positions on where we stand and how to join our Indian families. My father’s mother claimed to be 1/2 cherokee, which makes my dad 1/4 or 1/16 then myself should be either 1/16 or 1/32. But I feel more feelings toward my Indian side than my white side. So I feel sorry for the black man who is part Indian and who doesn’t get to claim their right. My father is gone but I feel very strong toward my Indian race and I can’t wait to prove my Indian nationality. My husband also is supposed to be the same numbers as I am. We both carry some similiar chromosomes which made it hard to have children. But I’m very proud of our Indian race and can’t wait to track my family decendents. Iwould hate to be cast out just because of some messed up rule. Please don’t take that right away from us, white or black/cherokee. A person has the right to belong if that’s part of them. Betty Tutterow / 4335 Parker Rd./ Martinsville Indiana 46151. betty_tutt49@yahoo.com Thank You

  3. On the other hand, with so many wannabe groups out there claiming to be Native American with the intent to scam the unknowing public, verifying legitimate groups are essential. If someone is not Native American then they should not be a citizen of a Native American tribe. I completely agree with the one drop rule for allowing tribes to protect their identity and culture. Personally I would rather see a blood quantum of 1/4 or more for citizenship status. Then where would the Non-Indian Freedmen fall.

    We all know that the Dawes rolls had flaws but we also know that the Dawes rolls was not completely based on what a person looked like as so many new papers have reported. There is just as much proof that says this.

    Following the media that seems to be where you are getting your facts has been completely one sided and full of mis-information. Besides, the issue is really the rights of a Sovereign Nation to determine it’s citizenship just as the US government does today.

  4. Ezekiel Crittenden

    I think that the Cherokee Nation has the soverign right to make any standards that they want to. Many of these so-called freedmen are looking not to just belong to a tribe, but to gain many of the benefits that come along with tribal membership, such as medical and free college.

    I am a Cherokee, of 1/8 blood, and my great-grandfather was registered on the Dawes rolls. I can trace my ancestry back before the Revolutionary war, when my people lived in Spring Place, Georgia. To be a Cherokee is a matter of pride, and blood does mean alot to us. To throw the racism card at the people who suffered more racism and loss than anyone is hogwash. The tribe has the right to make any requirements that it wants, that is the definition of being a Nation.

  5. The Cherokee, like other Indians, live in their own nation. They can do what the hell they want, without interference from outsiders. At least thats what it looks like on paper.

  6. I am looking for information on how to claim my American – Indian nationality. For my children and my great grandchildren & etc.
    I want to perserve their heritage.

    wanda white
    14 laurel lane
    London, Ky. 40741
    london, ky. 40741

  7. I love those recipes for people. WTF 1/32 cherokee? You mean to tell me eight generations ago, you had one grandparent who was cherokee. You maintain no cultural links with the tribe but you want to be recognized despite the 31 white ancestors on your tree. Come on.

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