Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Cherokee Bigots, Cherokee Tribe, So Proud...

I had always assumed that the venerable American passtime of Sticking It To The Black Man was pretty much a white man's game. But last Saturday's special tribal election proves that our Cherokee neighbors are well in on the action.

First, some background (and maybe this is something you learned in school, but I certainly didn't): It turns out that back in the day Cherokees--both individuals and the tribe itself--owned slaves. Not only that, but the tribe fought for the Confederacy. As a sovereign nation, the tribe had to sign its own peace treaty with the Union at war's end, and that treaty required the tribe to absorb its former slaves as tribal citizens.

Flash forward a quarter century to the early 1890s, when the Federal government, "Indian giver" par excellence, was busy yanking back Indian Territory and turning it into something called "Oklahoma." In order to parcel out reservation land in proportion to population, the government established the Dawes Commission and charged it with taking a census of tribal membership.

The census was conducted in keeping with two other proud American traditions: (1) undercounting blacks to screw non-blacks out of some benefit (viz. the three-fifths compromise), and (2) the "one-drop" definition of blackness. As a result, tribe members of pure Cherokee or mixed Cherokee and white (only) blood were counted as "Cherokees by blood," but tribe members with any black ancestry were counted as "freedmen."

The Dawes Commission census did not change who was a Cherokee for internal purposes, however; that was still determined under the 1866 peace treaty. So from the time of emancipation up until last weekend, the Cherokee Nation included black and part-black citizens. Not that there were so many black Cherokees anymore; CNN estimates around 2800. But that was 2800 too many for 3/4 of the Cherokee electorate, who on Saturday voted to amend the Cherokee Constitution so as to exclude the freedmen.

I guess the moral of the story is that we should give up on expecting people who have been shafted by the system to learn from the experience and refrain from shafting others. Cherokee Principal Chief Chad "Corntassel" Smith--formerly a professor of Indian Law at Dartmouth--sees the issue somewhat differently. He told the Washington Post that deciding who gets to be in the tribe is "a basic, inherent right," one for which the Cherokees had "paid very dearly."

A lot of folks felt the same way about their lunch counters, Chief.


  1. Once you start adding tri-racial isolates into the mix, many Americans who consider themselves of Native American descent turn out to be more than a bit African-American when they do genetic studies.

    Perhaps instead of reparations we can have separate but equal casinos.

  2. It's all a question of how to cut up the pie.
    Fewer diners means bigger pieces of the pie. The pie being money that is available just for being a member of the tribe. All those voters basically said they wanted a bigger piece.
    Of course, since the Cherokee are a dependent nation, they are not exactly subject to the Constitution.

  3. Oh yes, of course the elephant in the room here is the potential bonanza that can result from being recognized as a citizen of an Indian nation, now that reservation gambling has entered the scene. But I don't think that's all that is going on--consider the widely-circulated email by someone called Darren Buzzard: "Don't get taken advantage of by these people. They will suck you dry. Don't let black freedmen back you into a corner. PROTECT CHEROKEE CULTURE FOR OUR CHILDREN. FOR OUR DAUGHTER . . . FIGHT AGAINST THE INFILTRATION."

    The question of whether, and how much, the federal Constitution constrains tribal governments is murky, but I would note that under Art. VI, § 14 of the Cherokee Constitution, "Members of the Council and all Executive Officers shall be bound by oath, provided in Article XIII, to support the Constitutions of the Cherokee Nation and the United States of America." (And Art. XIII § 1 does indeed provide such an oath.) But I wasn't suggesting that the people who voted to expel the freedmen were acting unconstitutionally, just that they were being jerks.

  4. I live on Cherokee Road, in Nashville. You may ask why it is called Cherokee Road? Three white kids were skinned on their way home from school in the late 1700's right where my apartment is. Those poor kids. The Indians got em!


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