Brendan I. Koerner, Wired Magazine, Sept. 2005
Even by the pancake-flat standards of Middle America, Stick Ross Mountain is an unimpressive peak. It’s more of a gentle hill, really, poking out from behind the Wal-Mart just west of Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
But to the Cherokee, the 900-foot crest was remarkable enough to be named for a revered 19th-century member of the tribal council. Stick Ross is thought to be the illegitimate grandson of Chief John Ross, who led the tribe along the Trail of Tears. Ross the younger was a respected Native American and a skilled diplomat who acted as a liaison between tribes and local townsfolk. “He knew sign language and spoke Cherokee and Seminole. He was a trapper and a farmer and a rancher,” says Stick’s great-grandson, Leslie Ross, a 56-year-old retired civil servant whose greatest joy is recounting the Stick trivia he learned from his family in Muskogee. “And he was sheriff at one time, too. He was pretty renowned in Tahlequah.”
Stick may have died an exemplary citizen of the Cherokee Nation, but he was born into slavery. The Cherokee kept black slaves until 1866, when an emancipation treaty freed them from bondage and granted them full tribal citizenship. Known as the Freedmen, these men and women were embraced by the Cherokee as equals, and often married the offspring of their former masters. Like Stick, they identified with local cultures, spoke tribal languages, and took part in tribal religious rites.
And yet, three-quarters of a century after the death of Cherokee legend Stick Ross, there’s no room for his great-grandson in the Cherokee Nation. Leslie Ross has been denied citizenship in the tribe on the grounds that he is not truly Indian. “They said I don’t have any Indian blood. They say blacks have never had a part in the Cherokee Nation,” says Ross, his usually calm voice swelling with anger. “The thing is, there wouldn’t be a Cherokee Nation if it weren’t for my great-grandfather. Jesus, he was more Indian than the Indians!”
Ross is just one of at least 25,000 direct descendants of Freedmen who cannot join Oklahoma’s largest tribes. Once paragons of racial inclusion and assimilation, the Native American sovereign nations have done an about-face and systematically pushed out people of African descent. “There’s never been any stigma about intermarriage,” says Stu Phillips, editor of The Seminole Producer, a local newspaper in central Oklahoma. “You’ve got Indians marrying whites, Indians marrying blacks. It was never a problem until they got some money.”
For the better part of the 20th century, black Indians were permitted to vote in elections, sit on tribal councils, and receive benefits. Tribal leaders now insist that the Freedmen were never actually citizens and that they will never attain the honor of membership because they don’t have Native American blood. In 1983, the Cherokee tribe established a rule requiring citizens to carry a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. This federal document is available to anyone whose ancestors are listed on the Dawes Roll — a 1906 Indian census that excludes Freedmen. In 2000, the Seminoles expelled all 2,000 black members and denied their families a cut of the reparations money — never mind that their ancestors joined the tribe in the 18th century, endured the march from Florida to Oklahoma in the 1830s, and have considered themselves Indian for generations.
Outraged, numerous Freedmen have turned to the courts for help. In the most celebrated case, a black tribal leader named Sylvia Davis filed suit against the Seminole tribe in 1994 to get her son a $125 clothing stipend from the Seminole reparations money. But US courts have repeatedly refused to meddle in Indian affairs, noting that the sovereign nations determine their own membership criteria. Davis suffered a serious — and perhaps final — setback last year, when the Supreme Court refused to consider her appeal of a lower court’s ruling that the Seminoles could not be sued in federal court. (The Bush administration filed a brief on behalf of the tribe.)
Now, just as the Freedmen’s struggle appears all but lost, new hope is emerging from an unlikely place — the front lines of genetic science. Last year, several Freedmen leaders were approached by a molecular biology professor named Rick Kittles. As head of African Ancestry, a company he had recently founded to sell DNA testing services to amateur genealogists, Kittles promised to reveal any customer’s preslavery roots, whether they stretch to the Tikar of Cameroon or the Mende of Sierra Leone.