MICHELE NORRIS, host: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris. It's a largely forgotten footnote of history that many wealthy Native Americans in the Deep South owned African slaves. Those slaves joined their masters on the Trail of Tears when the American Indians were pushed west into Oklahoma in the early 1800s. Well, the Cherokee Nation has sparked outrage for a decision to expel many of its African-American citizens who are descendents of these slaves. NPR's Alex Kellog reports the issue could wind up in federal court.
ALEX KELLOG: Every September, the Cherokee Nation celebrates its national holiday.
(SOUNDBITE OF NATIVE AMERICAN MUSIC)
KELLOG: The holiday marks the signing of their first constitution after the Trail of Tears. The main event is a big parade. It features traditional Cherokee music, colorful floats and people singing and dancing in traditional garb. Tens of thousands of people descend on Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the heart of Cherokee Nation, each year. But this year, the holiday was marked by controversy and protests.
A day before the parade, a different group of people gathered in the blazing sun. They joined hands and prayed.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...anything that was wrong would be made right, in your name, Jesus. Amen and amen.
KELLOG: Many of those who gathered are descendents of Cherokee slaves. They're known as Freedmen, but now they say they've been kicked out of the Cherokee Nation by people they say are no more Indian than they are.
MARILYN VANN: The majority of the folks, members of the tribe and the leadership are persons who have lived lives of white privilege. They are people who have never been discriminated against in their lives. The majority of the people completely Caucasian-looking, blue-eyed blondes, the like.
KELLOG: Marilyn Vann says the tribe's decision is nothing more than outright racism. She heads a group known as the Descendants of Freedmen Association.
VANN: They never said we were lying. They never said that that evidence that is in the National Archives, that is in the libraries here was false, but it's basically we can do what we want to do. We have casinos. We can buy Washington D.C. from the top on down. That's the mentality of the folks here.
KELLOG: The Cherokee's highest court ruled in late August that the black Freedmen could be stripped of their citizenship. Why? Because they can't prove they have Indian blood. The tribe first voted in favor of this effort in 2007. Cherokee leaders say it's not a matter of race, but a simple matter of narrowing the definition of Indian down to those people who can prove they have Indian blood.
CARA COWAN WATTS: This is not a club. You can't just claim to be Cherokee and show up and be included.
KELLOG: Cara Cowan Watts is a vocal member of the Cherokee's tribal council. The Cherokee Nation is the largest of three federally-recognized Cherokee tribes. It boasts more than 300,000 members. Like many Indian nations, it fiercely defends its right to self-governance.
WATTS: This is absolutely something that we have to defend. And the Cherokee people overwhelmingly voted in the constitution that we want to remain an Indian tribe made up of Indians.
KELLOG: Watts notes that the Freedmen will be allowed to regain their citizenship if they can simply prove they are part Indian.
WATTS: If anyone cares that much about the issue, if they come and take time to meet with us and hang out, there are over 1,500 Cherokee - or there's approximately 1,500 Cherokee citizens that are Indian by blood and also descended from the Freedmen rolls.
KELLOG: The rolls Watts is referring to are better known as the Dawes Rolls. The Dawes Rolls were lists of Indian citizens created by the U.S. government in the early 1900s. The Dawes Rolls included thousands of blacks and whites who had lived with Indian tribes, such as the Cherokee, for generations. Historically, these non-Indians were recognized as Cherokee citizens. And that's why some view the tribe's recent decision as unjust.
DAVID LITTLEFIELD: Now, I have to say frankly that when you start making a blood argument for membership in an organization, you are dealing with race whether you want to or not.
KELLOG: Daniel Littlefield is a historian at the University of Arkansas who's written books on this subject. He says there's another problem with the nation's decision. Many black Freedmen actually have Indian blood, but the problem, he says, is that blacks, even those who were part Indian, were simply labeled as black on the Dawes Rolls, but those Indians mixed with white were labeled Indian. That's why Littlefield thinks it's unfair for the Freedmen to be singled out.
LITTLEFIELD: There were many Cherokees in the Cherokee Nation and on the Cherokee by blood roll who had very little blood quantum. If you think that one-one-thousand twenty-fourth Cherokee blood makes you a Cherokee, then that to me is one of the most blatant forms of racism.
KELLOG: Whether it's racism or not, the Cherokee Nation's decision puts it at odds with the federal government. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has already suspended more than $37 million in funding to the Cherokee. The tribe depends on that money to provide basic services. The Justice Department said last week that a key upcoming election for tribal chief will not be recognized by the federal government. Voting is scheduled for later this month.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs declined an interview request, but it warned the Cherokee Nation last week that the Freedmen's citizenship rights cannot be revoked. The bureau pointed to an 1866 treaty the Cherokees signed with the U.S. government after the end of the Civil War. It granted Freedmen equal rights as citizens, rights that include access to health clinics, scholarships and jobs reserved for Indians. Alex Kellog, NPR News, Washington.