A letter-to-the-editor in the LA Times makes a curious leap of logic on why the Freedmen should be excluded from the Cherokee Nation. Here is the full text of the letter:
Re “Who’s a Cherokee?” Opinion, July 10
Heather Williams writes that the Cherokee tribal constitution has been amended to require proof of a by-blood connection to be granted citizenship in the Cherokee Nation. Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) believes that this is discrimination and that federal funds to the tribe should be cut off by reason of racism.
My family has long passed down stories of Cherokee blood in our ancestry, and I am convinced that I am part Cherokee, although I am not a citizen of the nation. The Dawes Roll census in 1906 was considered a slap in the face by many of the Cherokee people, who purposely did not sign it, not realizing what importance it would have on their descendants. My ancestors were part of this group. I am sure that I am not alone.
I am fed up with people who scream racism at the first sign of disagreement. Withholding federal funding from the Cherokee Nation until it bows to Watson’s demands is extortion. The tribe has every right to make whatever citizenship requirements it thinks are appropriate.
If the Cherokee Nation is forced to change its constitution to allow descendants of the non-Indian freedmen citizenship, it will further muddy the waters of the Cherokee people. Those of us who have Cherokee blood (but didn’t sign the Dawes Roll) will not be able to claim their Indian heritage, while hundreds of people without Indian blood will be given that privilege. This is not acceptable.
It threw me because, based on the second paragraph, Sale looked to be headed towards supporting the Freedmen. She correctly states that the Dawes Roll is not a reliable record of who is Cherokee by blood. But then she abruptly reverses herself. Is she saying that if she can’t be a Cherokee citizen, then others shouldn’t either?
Why not instead make the argument that the Cherokees need a new model for citizenship, one that tries to remedy the mistakes of the past, not perpetuate them.
I know the tribe can’t open up to anyone who feels like calling themself a Cherokee. But there are many different models for citizenship.
For example, to be a United States citizen one can either be born from parents who are U.S. citizens, or go through a process that involves learning about the country and demonstrating that you will be a productive, law-abiding citizen. U.S. immigration laws are clearly not perfect, and they create plenty of controversies of their own. But even that flawed model has much greater flexibility than that of the Cherokees.
The blood quantum model is clearly racist. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It is by definition based on 19th Century ideas about race. Nothing should force the Cherokees, or any other tribe, to be contained by those outdated concepts.
Perhaps prospective citizenships would have to pass a test on the Cherokee language and history. Perhaps they would need to be sponsored by a current member or demonstrate in some other way a commitment and connection to the tribe.
That would have the side benefit of creating a real incentive for a new group of people to learn and participate in Cherokee culture. We often hear that many Native American languages are dying out because they are not spoken by younger generations. A better model of citizenship could inject new life into those struggling cultures.
Neither side of the debate so far has demonstrated any imagination on these issues. Supporters of the Freedmen accuse the tribe of discrimination, while supporters of the tribal government say it is a simple matter of the Cherokees’ right to choose their own members. Where are the voices saying that, though it may be their right, this is not the best way for the Cherokees to define citizenship?
My proposal above may not be a perfect fit for the Cherokees, but it is just one example of the many possibilities that are being missed. Ideas right now unfortunately seem to be constrained by very short-term political considerations. But if the goal is to ensure thriving, independent Indian cultures and peoples, we are thinking too small.