Cherokees Pull Memberships of Freed Slaves

Sean Murphy, AP, March 4, 2007

The Cherokee Nation vote to revoke the citizenship of the descendants of people the Cherokee once owned as slaves was a blow to people who have relied on tribal benefits.

Charlene White, a descendant of freed Cherokee slaves who were adopted into the tribe in 1866 under a treaty with the U.S. government, wondered Sunday where she would now go for the glaucoma treatment she has received at a tribal hospital in Stilwell.

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In Saturday’s special election, more than 76 percent of voters decided to amend the Cherokee Nation’s constitution to remove the estimated 2,800 freedmen descendants from the tribal rolls, according to results posted Sunday on the tribe’s Web site.

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Results to be finalized March 12

Cherokee Nation spokesman Mike Miller said Sunday that election results will not be finalized until after a protest period that extends through March 12. Services currently being received by freedmen descendants will not immediately be suspended, he said.

“There isn’t going to be some sort of sudden stop of a service that’s ongoing,” Miller said. “There will be some sort of transition period so that people understand what’s going on.”

In a statement late Saturday, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith said he was pleased with the turnout and election result.

“Their voice is clear as to who should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation,” Smith said. “No one else has the right to make that determination. It was a right of self-government, affirmed in 23 treaties with Great Britain and the United States and paid dearly with 4,000 lives on the Trail of Tears.”

The petition drive for the ballot measure followed a March 2006 ruling by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court that said an 1866 treaty assured freedmen descendants of tribal citizenship.

Mirrors 2000 Seminole decision

A similar situation occurred in 2000 when the Seminole Nation voted to cast freedmen descendants out of its tribe, said attorney Jon Velie of Norman, an expert on Indian law who has represented freedmen descendants in previous cases.

“The United States, when posed the same situation with the Seminoles, would not recognize the election and they ultimately cut off most federal programs to the Seminoles,” Velie said. “They also determined the Seminoles, without this relationship with the government, were not authorized to conduct gaming.”

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Miller, the tribal spokesman, defended the Cherokees against charges of racism, saying that Saturday’s vote showed the tribe was open to allowing its citizens vote on whether non-Indians be allowed membership.

“I think it’s actually the opposite. To say that the Cherokee Nation is intolerant or racist ignores the fact that we have an open dialogue and have the discussion, he said.


Members of the Cherokee Nation of native Americans have voted to revoke tribal citizenship for descendants of black slaves the Cherokees once owned.

A total of 76.6% voted to amend the tribal constitution to limit citizenship to “blood” tribe members.

Supporters said only the Cherokees had the right to determine tribal members.

Opponents said the amendment was racist and aimed at preventing those with African-American heritage from gaining tribal revenue and government funding.

The Cherokee Nation has 250,000 to 270,000 members, second only to the Navajo.

‘Right to vote’

The list of descendants stems from the Dawes Commission, established by Congress more than 100 years ago.

It created what are known as the final rolls, establishing different categories including: “blood” Cherokee, Cherokee freedman (of African descent), Cherokee by intermarriage and Delaware Cherokee.

Principal Chief Chad Smith said about 8,700 people had voted—more than the turnout for the Cherokee constitution vote of four years ago.

He said: “The Cherokee people exercised the most basic democratic right, the right to vote.

“Their voice is clear as to who should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation. No-one else has the right to make that determination.”

But opponents of the amendment levelled accusations of discrimination.

Tribal council member Taylor Keen said: “This is a sad chapter in Cherokee history . . . this is not my Cherokee Nation. My Cherokee Nation is one that honours all parts of her past.”

Saturday’s vote followed a ruling by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court last year securing tribal citizenship for descendants of freedmen.

Members can obtain government benefits and tribal services including housing and medical support.

Slaves were held by a number of native American tribes and were freed after the Civil War in 1866.

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