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Freedmen Question Divides Cherokees

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Freedmen Question Divides Cherokees

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Freedmen Question Divides Cherokees

Freedmen Question Divides Cherokees

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Voters in the Cherokee Nation have decided to kick out black members of the tribe. The ancestors of the Freedmen, as they're known, were slaves once owned by Cherokees. Native American filmmaker Jenni Monet offers her insights on the vote.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

A week ago the Cherokee Nation held a special election on the tribe's citizenship requirements. More than three-quarters of voters chose to amend the tribal constitution and revoke the citizenship of roughly 2,800 black members of the Cherokee tribe. The Cherokee Freedmen, as they're called, were slaves of Cherokees when they were forced to walk from their home in the Smokey Mountains to what's now Oklahoma. These slaves of course were freed at the end of the Civil War and were given Cherokee citizenship rights in an 1866 treaty. The Freedmen intend to challenge the election results and even asked the U.S. government to cut federal ties to the Cherokee Nation. One person who's been following this legal battle is Jenny Monet, a filmmaker of Laguna and Zuni Pueblo descent. She's working on a documentary about the history of the Cherokee Freedman called "Cherokee by Blood." She joins us from member station KWGS in Tulsa. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. JENNY MONET (Filmmaker): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Is there any reason other than simple racism that would lead so many Cherokee to vote against the membership of people who've been a member of their tribe for so many years?

Ms. MONET: Let's talk about discrimination. You take a look at the long history of Oklahoma, and ironically, you know, 100 years ago it was the statehood of Oklahoma in which the first law that was passed was the Railcar Act, which put African-Americans in the trains and separate cars...

SIMON: Yeah. But let me point out, that's not the law in Oklahoma now and hasn't been for over some time, and you're not putting the citizenship rights of anybody up for the vote in the state of Oklahoma and inviting people not to be citizens.

Ms. MONET: I guess what I was saying and what I was getting at is that the mentality of the Cherokee Indian tribe at that time was do we cross the line with our black brothers and sisters or do we support Oklahoma statehood and follow in that regard?

And if you look at the Cherokee Nation, they are considered one of the more assimilated tribal governments of all the 563 federally recognized tribes today. They are also considered one of the powerful and prosperous. They have a wonderful model of checks and balance systems with their tribal Supreme Court.

But in terms of really getting down to the race issue, yes, you'll have critics here who will downright say it's bigotry, because what's unlike other cases where identity wars are dividing tribes today, the defining factor here isn't money. There has been criticism that they're only signing up to get health care benefits or they sign up and then enroll in this housing programs.

So is it voting power? You'll hear a lot of proponents of the Freedman say the current administration in the tribe is concerned that the Freedman have a large voting power, but I think that after this vote you're hearing more sentiment about bigotry.

SIMON: What could happen legally at this point if the Freedman get their case heard before a U.S. district court, and could there be repercussions for other tribes?

Ms. MONET: Well, certainly the profound parallel in all of this is the situation of the Seminole Freedman case that really settled itself in 2000. The Seminole quietly removed to - removed its Seminole Freedman citizens from the rolls. Benefits were cut, such as education funding for children, voting rights.

The Treaty of 1886 for the Seminole Nation between the Seminole Nation and the United States government secured the rights of the Seminole Freedman. And if you're not recognizing this right in your own treaty, then you've abrogated it between the United States and our government-to-government ward-guardian relationship no longer stands.

So that's very prominent to consider in the Cherokee Nation case right now. I don't think that anyone wants to see this pushed into the federal arena for very many reasons. Once you start taking internal tribal matters that have all avenues to be handled within the tribe, the minute it starts to enter the federal arena is where the real threat begins, because it becomes an imposition on a tribe's right to self-govern themselves, to self-determination, and that very sovereign strength that they've built up over the last 30 years.

Imagine if Congress steps in and starts mandating blood requirements and restrictions on all tribes, locking them into an agreement that they didn't want themselves. It takes tribes backwards, not forwards, in their efforts that they've worked so hard to regenerate and rebound from in their sovereign motivation.

SIMON: Jenny Monet, Native American filmmaker in Oklahoma making a documentary about the Cherokee legal battle called "Cherokee by Blood." Thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. MONET: Thank you very much, Scott.

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Cherokee Tribe Faces Decision on Freedmen

Cherokee Tribe Faces Decision on Freedmen

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Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith says tribes offer a real sense of identity to members. Frank Morris hide caption

toggle caption Frank Morris

Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith says tribes offer a real sense of identity to members.

Frank Morris

Johnny Toomer, a Cherokee Freedman, looks over photocopied documents in his living room that show his family connections to the tribe. Frank Morris hide caption

toggle caption Frank Morris

Johnny Toomer, a Cherokee Freedman, looks over photocopied documents in his living room that show his family connections to the tribe.

Frank Morris

The Cherokees are building a new clinic just outside Muskogee, Oklahoma. Frank Morris hide caption

toggle caption Frank Morris

The Cherokees are building a new clinic just outside Muskogee, Oklahoma.

Frank Morris

A federal court hearing Wednesday pits Native Americans against the descendants of African slaves once kept by tribal members. The Cherokee Nation has moved to expel the people known as Cherokee Freedmen.

The Freedmen argue that a 140-year-old treaty protects their citizenship in the Cherokee Nation. The conflict puts the tribal government in the unusual position trying to argue against a long-standing treaty.

The Cherokee tribe has always been one of the largest in the United States. It was also once one of the wealthiest. Some of its members held more than 100 slaves on plantations in the south. In recent times though, many Cherokee have lived in deep poverty.

The tribe only recently tapped casino revenue to build modern health clinics, like the one rising from the countryside near Muskogee, Oklahoma.

With the Cherokee's financial picture brightening somewhat and a tribal ruling in their favor, Freedmen such as Johnny Toomer — a forklift operator in Muskogee — have staked their claim to membership.

"All I want [is] to be done is done fairly and right," Toomer said. "My ancestors received benefits and was done fairly. I want to be done fairly."

Toomer's great, great grandmother was the daughter of slaves held by the Cherokee. Her people likely walked to Oklahoma from Georgia on the infamous Trail of Tears, a march forced by the U.S. government that killed nearly a fifth of the tribe.

Toomer says the proof of his claim is in the photocopied documents arrayed on his coffee table. His relative's name is on what's called the Dawes Rolls, a federal government list of Cherokees, and members of four other tribes, living on Indian lands around 1900.

The Dawes Rolls have become the gold standard for determining tribal citizenship. If you have a direct descendant on the rolls, you're in.

But a century ago a bureaucrat marked that Toomer's great, great grandmother was a Cherokee Freedman. It's that notation that now puts his tribal citizenship at risk.

"Is it because of the color of my skin, [the] reason I'm not accepted? That's the way I feel about it sometimes," Toomer said.

A tribal court ruling last year forced the Cherokees to recognize Freedmen as citizens. That prompted Toomer and about 1,500 other Freedmen to sign up for membership cards.

That sparked a referendum to amend the tribe's constitution and formally expel the Freedmen.

"It's an Indian thing, we do not want non-Indians in the tribe, our Indian blood is what binds us together," said Jodie Fishinghawk, who helped lead the drive to expel the Freedmen.

She notes that nearly all Indian nations require their citizens to be able to document direct ancestors in the tribe. Standards vary from nation to nation, and most are more stringent than the Cherokee. Fishinghawk says a tribe's right to set conditions of citizenship is fundamental to its sovereignty.

"It's a democratic process, people are allowed to vote. That's what America is based on, that's what we use here in the Cherokee Nation," Fishinghawk said. "And I don't see any problem with it."

The Cherokee Freedmen do. After fighting on the losing side in the Civil War, the Cherokees signed a treaty guaranteeing their newly freed slaves citizenship in the tribe.

Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, says the 1866 treaty's protection outweighs the tribe's claims of sovereignty on this issue. And besides, she says, the Cherokee tribe has always been a diverse nation, not a race.

"You know there never was such a thing as the Cherokee Race. Cherokee was a citizenship," Vann said. "The federal government doesn't have government-to-government relations with races, only nations."

But this whole discussion of race really misses the point, according to Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith. In his office looking out at the sprawling tribal headquarters campus near Tahlequah, Okla., Smith said more people do want to be in the tribes these days. But it's not so much because of subsidized health care and housing, but rather a search for a cultural identity.

"And it's easy to grasp and look to tribes, who are indigenous and have a sense of identity, and have sustained themselves through terrible times," Smith said.

The Cherokee Freedmen maintain that their ancestors helped sustain the tribe through very the worst of times. They argue that now that things have improved they shouldn't have to fight to call themselves Cherokees.

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