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Today, a federal court will consider the question of who counts as a member of the Cherokee nation. Native Americans are on one side, and on the other side are descendants of African slaves whom the Cherokees once owned. Those descendants are known as the Cherokee Freedmen, and they say their Cherokee citizenship is protected by a 140-year-old treaty. But the Cherokee nation wants to expel them.
Frank Morris of member station KCUR tells a story of history, race and casino money.
FRANK MORRIS: The Cherokee tribe has always been one of the largest in the U.S., and it used to be one of the wealthiest. Some of its members held more than a hundred slaves on plantations in the South. In recent times, though, many of the Cherokees have lived in deep poverty. The tribe only recently tapped into casino revenue to build modern clinics like this one, rising out of the countryside near Muskogee, Oklahoma.
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With the Cherokees' financial picture brightening somewhat and the allure of Indian culture, the tribe is seeing growing interest from people like Johnny Tumor(ph), a forklift operator in Muskogee.
Mr. JOHNNY TUMOR (Forklift Operator, Muskogee, Oklahoma): All I want to be done is done fairly and right. My ancestors received benefits and was done fairly. I want to be done fairly.
MORRIS: Tumor's great-great-grandmother was the daughter of slaves held by the Cherokees. Her people likely walked to Oklahoma from Georgia on the infamous Trail Of Tears, a forced march that killed nearly a fifth of the tribe. Tumor says the proof is in the photocopied documents arrayed on his coffee table. Her 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 had become the gold standard determining tribal citizenship. If you have a direct descendant on the rolls, you're in. But a century ago, a bureaucrat marked that Tumor's great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee Freedmen. It's that notation that now puts his tribal citizenship at risk.
Mr. TUMOR: It's because the color of my skin, the reason why I'm not accepted. That's the way I feel about it sometimes.
MORRIS: A tribal court ruling last year forced the Cherokees to recognize the Freedmen as citizens. That prompted Tumor and about 1,500 other Freedmen to sign up for membership cards. That, in turn, sparked a referendum to amend the tribe's constitution to formally expel the Freedmen.
Ms. JODIE FISHINGHAWK (Leading Movement to Expel Cherokee Freedman): It's an Indian thing. We do not want non-Indians in a tribe. Our Indian blood is what binds us together.
MORRIS: Jodie Fishinghawk 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. Most are more stringent than the Cherokees. But Fishinghawk says a tribe's right to set the conditions of citizenship is fundamental to its sovereignty as a nation.
Ms. FISHINGHAWK: It's a democratic process. People are allowed to vote. And that's what American was based on. That's what we use on the Cherokee nation. And I don't see any problem with it.
MORRIS: The Cherokee Freedmen do. Because after fighting on the losing side of the Civil War, the Cherokees signed a treaty guaranteeing their newly-freed slaves citizenship. Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen Association, says the 1866 treaty's protection outweighs the tribe's claims of sovereignty on the issue. And besides, she says genetics do not define the Cherokee nation.
Ms. MARILYN VANN (President, Descendants of Freedmen Association): You know, there never was such a thing as the Cherokee race. Cherokee was a citizenship. And actually, it's safer for the tribe, to me, if they would say we are a nation of people. The federal government does not have government-to-government relations with races.
MORRIS: 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, Oklahoma, Smith says more people do want to join the tribe these days. But it's not so much because of subsidized healthcare and housing, but rather a search for cultural identity.
Mr. CHAD SMITH (Cherokee Nation Principal Chief): And it's easy to grasp and look to tribes who are indigenous and who have a sense of identity and have sustained themselves through terrible times.
MORRIS: The Cherokee Freedmen maintain that their ancestors have helped sustain the tribe through the very worst of times. They argued that now that things have been proved, they shouldn't have to fight to call themselves Cherokees.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.
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