comments on Cherokee Freedmen

Tazmin comments on a post at my old blog about the Cherokee Freedmen:

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.

I will start with what we agree on. Tazmin is correct to say that the rights of a sovereign nation are important to consider. But like I argued in a previous post, it is also about racism. We have to decide which concern trumps the other, and the answer isn’t easy.

Media coverage of the issue has been terrible. I wouldn’t necessarily say it is full of mis-information, but there definitely has not been enough information in media reports to really tell what is going on. It may be difficult to get any sources to talk about this, but I think an important story is being missed about the internal politics of the Cherokee Nation that led to the split in the first place.

For instance, a recent Tulsa World story begins:

Former Cherokee Nation Chief Joe Byrd said Friday that his tribe’s efforts to disenfranchise descendants of former slaves have allowed racism to resurface.

Without referring to him by name, Byrd blamed Chief Chad Smith for not stepping forward to stop those efforts.

Smith responded by accusing Byrd of making “hollow and desperate” allegations against his tribe to “salvage his devastated political aspirations.”

Clearly much more is going on here than is revealed in the article. What is Joe Byrd’s political history? Does Smith have a valid point, or is he simply trying to deflect attention from his own mess? Without more background on Cherokee politics, there’s simply no way for us to know.

Other stories have done little to answer these questions, or even made it worse.

Still, whatever might remain about the current situation, I don’t think it’s hard to see serious flaws in the Dawes Roll. Kevin Noble Maillard, a law professor and member or the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma, wrote in Indian Country Today:

“Indian blood,” as it is known today, was invented by white Northeasterners on vacation. In the late 19th century, a group of whites known as “Friends of the Indian” met annually at Lake Mohonk, a resort in upstate New York, to propose speeches and papers addressing solutions to the ”Indian problem.” From this group of politicians, scholars and missionaries emerged the General Allotment Act. Each adult citizen of the various Indian nations would receive plots of land. These farms represented a physical testament to the Indians’ ”entry wedge” into mainstream culture. And they also freed more tribal land for white settlement.

In deciding who would get a farm, the “Friends” engaged the federal government to locate the eligible Indians. Thus, in order to solve the “Indian problem,” the bureaucrats had to ask, “Who is Indian?” For them, a person who was part-white and part-Indian could still qualify as Indian. But an applicant with partial African ancestry was irrevocably classified as black. The social rules of miscegenation, or the mixing of races, allowed for white-appearing Indians, but excluded anyone partially black.

The Friends intended to create order from chaos, and we still feel their impact. Supposedly, contemporary freedmen have no Indian blood because no record of it exists. No record ever existed, even when the reality did.

Tazmin is right that there needs to be some way to keep people from taking advantage of Indian Nations by claiming membership unfairly. But I’m not convinced that the Dawes Roll is the right way to do that.

Many Cherokee Freedmen are active in Cherokee culture and politics, with a long history in the tribe. Their ancestors traveled on the Trail of Tears. They are certainly not a “wannabe group.”

Photo by Flickr user Piero Sierra used under a Creative Commons license.

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One response to “comments on Cherokee Freedmen

  1. i am gonna show this to my friend, brother

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