Cherokee Nation votes to expel slave descendants
Cherokee Nation members voted Saturday to revoke the tribal citizenship of an estimated 2,800 descendants of the people the Cherokee once...
The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — Cherokee Nation members voted Saturday to revoke the tribal citizenship of an estimated 2,800 descendants of the people the Cherokee once owned as slaves.
With a majority of districts reporting, 76 percent had voted in favor of an amendment to the tribal constitution that would limit citizenship to descendants of "by blood" tribe members as listed on the federal Dawes Commission's rolls from more than 100 years ago.
The commission, set up by a Congress bent on breaking up Indians' collective lands and parceling them out to tribal citizens, drew up two rolls, one listing Cherokees by blood and the other listing freedmen, a roll of blacks regardless of whether they had Indian blood.
Some opponents of the ballot question argued that attempts to remove freedmen from the tribe were motivated by racism.
Tribal officials said the vote by the 250,000-member Cherokee Nation was a matter of self-determination. "It's a basic, inherent right to determine our own citizenry. We paid very dearly for those rights," Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith said last month.
But the Cherokee freedmen see the vote as less about self-determination than about discrimination and historical blinders. They see in the referendum hints of a desire by some Cherokees to deny the tribe's slave-owning past.
"They know these people exist. And they're trying to push them aside, as though they were never with them," said Andra Shelton, who has at least one black ancestor. Shelton, 59, can recall her mother gossiping in fluent Cherokee when Cherokee friends and relatives visited.
People on both sides of the issue say the fight is also about tribal politics — the freedmen at times have been at odds with the tribal leadership — and about money.
Advocates of expelling the freedmen call it a matter of safeguarding tribal resources, which include a $350 million annual budget from federal and tribal revenue, and Cherokees' share of a gambling industry that, for U.S. tribes overall, takes in $22 billion a year.
The grass-roots campaign for expulsion has given heavy play to warnings that keeping freedmen in the Cherokee Nation could encourage thousands more to sign up for a slice of the tribal pie.
Many of the Cherokees' slaves accompanied the tribe when it was expelled from its traditional lands in North Carolina and Georgia and forced to migrate in 1838 and 1839 to Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma.
Thousands of Cherokees died during the trip, which became known as the "Trail of Tears." It is not known how many of their slaves also died.
The tribe fought for the Confederacy. In defeat, it signed a federal treaty in 1866 committing that its slaves, who had been freed by tribal decree during the war, would be absorbed as citizens of the Cherokee Nation.
The Cherokee Nation expelled many descendants of slaves in 1983 by requiring them to show a degree of Indian blood through the Dawes rolls. A tribal court reinstated them in March 2006. That spurred Saturday's special election, which received a go-ahead Feb. 21 when a federal judge in Washington denied the freedmen's request for an injunction to halt the balloting.
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.
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