The 250,000-member Cherokee Nation will vote in a special election today whether to override a 141-year-old treaty and change the tribal constitution to bar “freedmen,” the descendants of former tribal slaves, from being members of the sovereign nation.
“It’s a basic, inherent right to determine our own citizenry. We paid very dearly for those rights,” Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith said in an interview last month in Oklahoma City.
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 racism and a desire by some Cherokees to deny the tribe’s slave-owning past.
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.
“Don’t get taken advantage of by these people. They will suck you dry,” Darren Buzzard, an advocate of expelling the freedmen, wrote last summer in a widely circulated e-mail denounced by freedmen. “Don’t let black freedmen back you into a corner. PROTECT CHEROKEE CULTURE FOR OUR CHILDREN. FOR OUR DAUGHTER[S] . . . FIGHT AGAINST THE INFILTRATION.”
Cherokees, along with Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles, were long known as the “Five Civilized Tribes” because they adopted many of the ways of their white neighbors in the South, including the holding of black slaves.
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 perished.
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.
By the late 1880s, Washington started opening up tribal lands in Oklahoma to white settlers, breaking previous pledges to the tribes. As a step toward ending tribal ownership of Indian Territory, Congress initiated a new census of the “Five Civilized Tribes”—a census known as the Dawes Commission. It is that head count that the Cherokee Nation would use to determine the eligibility of freedmen.
Past censuses of the tribes had noted both the Indian and the African ancestry of freedmen, counting those of mixed heritage as Native Americans. The Dawes Commission took a different approach.
Setting up tents in fields and at crossroads, the census takers eyeballed and interviewed those who came before them, separating them into different categories. If someone seemed to be Indian or white with Indian blood, the commission listed that person as whole or part Indian, historians say. People who the officials thought looked black were listed as freedmen, and no Indian lineage was noted, according to freedmen and historians.
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 today’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.
And the fight over heritage is moving beyond the Cherokee Nation. The other tribes that owned slaves, and black descendants in those tribes, are watching the vote.
At his home in Fort Coffee, a hamlet founded by Choctaw freedmen, Triplett said he is not trying to immerse himself in his Indian heritage. “Oh, no!” he said. “I’m black!”
But a few days later he stood at Fort Coffee’s Choctaw cemetery, where because of renovation a chain-link fence separates the Indian and freedman sides of the graveyard. Triplett pointed out ancestors.
Leaving, he shouted a warning to the Choctaw side: “Guess who’s coming to dinner!”