race, sovereignty, politics

The AP picks up on some Cherokee Freedmen related ugliness in California:

Diane Ross-Neal grew up hearing about her Cherokee heritage, so when the tribe promoted clubs for the thousands of members living in California, it seemed natural for her to share her own story. She soon realized that not everyone wanted to hear it.

At meetings, she says, organizers tried to pry the microphone from her hands, called her a liar or refused to let her speak at all. The reason, Ross-Neal says, is simple: She is black.

“I went to all the meetings and I felt so unwelcome,” Ross-Neal said of the California clubs. “I kid you not, it was like, ‘What are you doing here? You’re black, you’re not Cherokee.’ It was so thick you could cut it with a knife.”

The sides in this fight have tended to line up as sovereignty versus racism. Defenders of the expulsion try to muddy the waters over the racism complaint by bringing out dark-skinned Cherokees who remain in the tribe. And some of those Cherokees take that side themselves:

At a recent meeting for California Cherokees at a park in Riverside, about a half-dozen black Cherokees shared a Cherokee blessing, potluck dinner and nature walk with several dozen other club members. The black attendees, however, were quick to point out that they had Cherokee blood — unlike the recently ousted freedmen like Ross-Neal who can’t prove it.

Lloyd Thompson, who is one-quarter Cherokee, said he supported the tribe’s vote to kick out the freedmen because those with no Indian blood were trying to use race to get benefits they don’t deserve. “There are people who are dark-skinned, like mine, and they interbred with the Cherokee and they lived with the Cherokee. They are authentic,” he said. “These other people are interlopers. Cherokees are a proud people and we know who we are.”

But the truth is, it is about both sovereignty and racism. Cornell University professor Eric Cheyfitz sums it up very effectively in Indian Country Today (emphasis mine):

Morally, the issue is clear: Why attempt to disenfranchise a particular group of Cherokee Nation citizens based, it would appear, solely on their race? The response from the government of the nation has been that this move, contrary to the way it appears, is not racist – there are black Cherokees on the ”blood” rolls, it argues – but a matter of sovereignty, a question of who gets to decide tribal enrollments: the nation itself or the federal government. While under federal Indian law the tribes are granted autonomy in the area of enrollment, the Secretary of the Interior, under the same proviso, has a right to intervene in these decisions. Legal matters notwithstanding, a nation constituted by ”blood” is a nation constituted by racial borders; and a nation constituted by this kind of exclusivity is by definition racist. The irony here is that the constitution of tribal rolls by blood quantum is a federal imposition of the Dawes era, a stricture that the tribes themselves later adopted in contradiction of traditional practices.

Legally, the issue is also clear: as noted above, Article 9 of the Treaty of 1866 grants the ”freedmen … all the rights of native Cherokees.” End of story. If Indian nations expect the federal government to abide by the treaties, which are the foundation of federal Indian law, recognizing the government-to-government relationship between Indian nations and the United States, then the federal government has a right to expect the same, even though the trail of treaties broken by the government is all too long. The irony here is also evident – the habitual treaty-breaker insists on the sanctity of the treaty – but does not negate the principle or fact of the law.

What complicates the legal issue, but has gone unstated, is that the relationship between the tribes and the federal government, as determined by federal Indian law, is a colonial relationship, in which Congress has ”plenary power” (final say) in Indian affairs. Within this structure, the tribes are ”domestic dependent nations” (my emphasis), effectively minors before a law in which the federal government holds their lands in ”trust.”

One can only understand the Watson resolution, then, if one understands that the history driving it is not only the violent and troubled history of race in the United States but also the violent and troubled history of the struggle for sovereignty of colonized Indian nations with the colonizer.

It is unfortunate that the sovereignty of an Indian Nation is being endangered over this issue. Even if Congress resolves the legal and moral complaint by removing Cherokee sovereignty and forcing them to readmit the Freedmen, the Cherokees will be left a divided people, once again at the mercy of their colonial overseers. Is it worth the cost? I’m not sure.

But there are hints of a more sinister story beneath the elevated principles of national identity and race. Again from the AP:

John Velie, an attorney for the freedmen, said that until the recent ouster, freedmen were more politically active in the tribe and voted in much higher numbers than their non-black counterparts. He sees the new communities for far-flung Cherokees as an effort to counter that influence and drum up new voters who will toe the tribe’s anti-freedmen line.

It hasn’t been discussed much in the media, but it’s suspicious that Principal Chief Chad Smith’s great defense of sovereignty has the added bonus of kicking out an active group of citizens who do not support him politically. It would be doubly tragic if this whole conflict began as a venal grab for power by Smith.

Photo by Flickr user dbking used under a Creative Commons license.

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