There is a civil rights and racial justice controversy going on in the largest Indian nation in the United States. In August, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court affirmed the results of a 2007 Constitutional Amendment that required that to be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, one must have at least one direct line descendent from a member of the “Dawes List”, a listing created by the United States Government in the late 1800s of all Cherokee Indians. At one level, this would not seem to be a particularly note-worthy event, except that by affirming this amendment, the Cherokee Nation disenfranchised at least 2,800 Freedmen — descendants of black slaves that were taken with the Cherokees when they were relocated from the South to Oklahoma in the 1830s. The U.S. Government is threatening to freeze services to the tribe if they do not reverse their decision.
The Wall Street Journal and Reuters have reported that the Freedmen are challenging this decision because they will be unable to access tribal medical benefit, health care, food stipends and other benefits the Freedmen descendants receive as members of the Cherokee Nation. Discussions in the New York Times’ Room for Debate provide much-needed perspectives from Cherokees, Freedmen, and other historians, and tribal rights experts. From these editorials, the complexity of the discussion becomes clear. The issue is not about health care or food stipends. Nor is it, as the Cherokee Nation claims, about sovereignty of the Native American nation within our nation. It is about “blood quantum,” who is a Native American and the long shadow of slavery.
Unfortunately, this is about racism. As Joanne Barker, associate professor of American Indian studies at San Francisco State University said at the conclusion her editorial on this topic, “the sovereignty that tribal people claim is only as good as how they treat each other in its name.” This is not an abstract issue for many Louisianans of African descent who also claim Cherokee and other Native American heritage. Many may not know whether they are considered members of the Cherokee Nation or other Native American tribes, but this decision, if upheld, will results in their losing substantial rights and benefits. Anyone whose forbearers have claimed connections to the Cherokees or other Native American groups need to pay attention. If you are interested in this issue, please contact us at intouch @ rodneyandetter . com