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.