who is an Indian, pt. 3

I have followed the Cherokee Freedmen story quite a bit at my old blog. If you’re unfamiliar with what is going on, here’s a quick primer:

The Freedmen are descendants of slaves once held by Cherokees. The tribe originally sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, so after the war the federal government required them to give full citizenship to their freed slaves. In 1893, the Dawes Rolls formalized the classification, defining most Cherokees with any amount of African blood as Freedmen.

The Freedmen remained citizens of the Cherokee Nation until the 1980s, when the Cherokee government took away their enrollment. In March 2006, the Cherokee Supreme Court ruled that the expulsion was unconstitutional, so a constitutional amendment was voted on and passed by a very large margin to keep Freedmen out of the tribe.

Congress, led by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, responded with a bill that would remove federal recognition from the Cherokees and deny them approximately $300 million in federal funds if they did not reinstate the Freedmen. The legislation passed, but an amendment by Rep. Dan Boren allows the tribe to keep its funding while the issue works its way through the Cherokee courts.

Dan Boren’s amendment was the right thing to do. If the issue can be solved within the Cherokee Nation, it will be much better for the Freedmen, the Cherokees, and the relationship of all Indian tribes with the federal government. Any punitive measure by the United States quite understandably awakens memories of the many terrible crimes done by our government to Native Americans in times past.

However, that should not blind us to the sad truth that the expulsion of the Freedmen repeats many of those same sins once done to the Cherokees. OU English professor Robert Warrior makes the case in an editorial for Indian Country News:

To be blunt, a history of modern slavery is also a history of rape. To be a slave among the Cherokees was to be sexually available to those who controlled your life. By the 1890s, a legal distinction between the Freedmen and those who were Cherokee “by blood” emerged, but in the moral universe such a distinction was hard to make, and even today the claim of those in the Cherokee majority who say they are primarily interested in maintaining their nation for those who can verify that they have Cherokee lineage rings hollow alongside the murky history of violence that Cherokee slaves and their descendants have inhabited. Such claims fail to rise to the level of those earlier Cherokees who understood that the tragic absurdity of reconciling a nation to its history of slavery requires wisdom and compassion, not insulting and ridiculous appeals to faulty membership requirements and the poses of victimhood.

Some have tried to claim the expulsion of the Freedmen has nothing to do with race, pointing to the many recognized Cherokee members with black skin. But as Warrior shows, the lines cannot be drawn so cleanly. The Dawes Rolls themselves are based on outdated 19th Century ideas about race. A thriving Indian culture and people should be looking for ways to be more inclusive, to spread their language and traditions to more people, not force them out.

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