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Marilyn Vann: the Black Cherokee advocate speaks on racism, tribal membership and the future of the Freedmen.

This year, Cherokees voted to expel Black Indians, known as Cherokee Freedmen, from the tribe. Last year, the highest tribal court voted that this would be illegal. How did the conflict begin? The Freedmen had been recognized as citizens ever since the Civil War ... For about a 20-year period, the Cherokee tribe had just refused to register Freedmen tribal members or give them voting cards. About a year ago, the tribal courts said that people with citizenship in the right tribe just couldn't be blocked from exercising their rights. This is when Chad Smith, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, and some of his key supporters on the Tribal Council began a big campaign to kick the Freedmen people out of the tribe. What culminated from that was a petition that had sufficient signatures to put this to a special election. About 8,000 of the 260,000 members voted [on March 3, 2007]. About 6,000 people wanted to kick the Freedmen out and about 2,000 did not.

What's happened since the special election? The Congressional Black Caucus is doing an inquiry led by Congresswoman Diane Watson of California. There's a call for hearings, as well as a call to cut off funding [for the Cherokee Nation] until this matter is resolved.

One of the things that a lot of people don't know about this is that these Freedmen have a treaty right to citizenship. Yes, the majority of them have documents to prove they have Indian ancestry, but also there is a citizenship right guaranteed by both the tribe and the federal government.

About five or six years ago, something similar happened in the Seminole Nations where those leaders pushed a movement to kick the Freedmen people out. The Bureau of Indian Affairs moved in and [withheld money] without a lot of hesitation. But there are differences, the main one being the Cherokee Nation is a big, powerful tribe. It has a lot of big lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and they have a lot of people in positions at the Department of Interior, which, of course, includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

You say the Cherokee is a nation, not a race. Could you say more about that? About 100 years ago, the tribes were here more as a nation. The people up until very recently thought of themselves as a nation. They had leaders and land bases, they entered into treaties. They also adopted people as citizens just like the U.S. does. The idea of "race" and "blood quantum" really came into being about 100 years ago when the federal government was trying to divide up tribal lands by force. They were saying," These people aren't Indian enough, and they're not going to get an allotment." Later on, the federal government, in order to save more money, started trying to say people weren't entitled to this unless they were a certain amount of blood quantum. This is really when a lot of people started thinking of Indians as being a race. The thing is, if you are associated with a tribe that is not federally recognized, from an ethnic standpoint you may be an Indian, but from a legal standpoint you and your tribe don't exist.

The Cherokee Nation adopted white people, or other Indians, or even people of African blood--this is not any different from other nations adopting people. [The attitude is] "the people on these certain rolls, we're going to keep in the tribe. The people that came from these certain ancestors on these other rolls over here, we're going to throw them out like garbage." There are white people who remain in these tribes because they are not listed on Freedmen rolls, but then the Freedmen are just thrown away.

The Dawes Roll is the federal list of Cherokee Indians. Can you explain how that plays a role in the dispute? The Dawes Commission put people on these different lists. Every person who was a citizen of the tribe had a right to be put on the lists, but there were different things that went with those lists. For instance, the Delaware-Cherokee Roll, about 200 people, those were the original Delaware people who came to the Cherokee nation and got citizenship by treaty in 1867. They were entitled to 160 acres of land, which is more than the other people in the tribe got by agreement with the U.S. government. That included every person who was a citizen of the tribe, including the white people who were citizens of the Delaware tribe. It wasn't a matter of what race they were.

The people on the Freedmen Roll had a right to citizenship based on the Treaty of 1866. All of them had African ancestry, but they weren't people who necessarily didn't have Cherokee ancestry or Shawnee ancestry or some other Indian tribe. You can see that based on the testimony that this Dawes Commission took, where people would talk about having an Indian mother or father. The federal government wanted people on this Freedmen list because it was easier to steal their land. All these white people were coming into Oklahoma illegally demanding that these tribes give up land. Anybody that was put down on this Freedman Roll, their land became sellable or "unrestricted." It wasn't a matter of not having Indian blood. All the U.S. government was trying to do was give as much land as possible to these white people, who weren't even supposed to be here.

How long have you been engaged in this struggle to enfranchise Freedmen? My father was very elderly when I was born. He was an original enrollee. I don't know that he knew he was supposed to be a member of the tribe. I know he was a member of the tribe, but because he was elderly and his sisters were elderly and they had been registered under a different name than what they were using later, it took me a long time to find someone who had enough information for me to try to register with. So I didn't try to register with the tribe until late 2001. I got the shock of my life. I got something back in the mail that said, "This roll number doesn't have a degree of blood quantum by it." I didn't understand what they were talking about. I called the registrar. I did quite a bit of research. The more that I studied, the angrier I got. I said, "Something's going to have to be done to turn this around." I started setting up meetings, set up an organization, set up a Board of Directors, and started moving forward with trying to change the status quo. The Descendents of Freedmen of the Five Tribes was incorporated in October 2002.

Your attorney, John Velie, has said this battle over Freedmen citizenship represents a "racial schism." Why do you think Cherokee leaders are so convinced by the "Indian by blood" concept? The vast majority of people in the Cherokee Nation know nothing about the tribe. The majority of them are people who until 10 or 15 years ago didn't want to have anything to do with the tribe. They were living lives of white privilege. As the tribe has prospered, these people have come back at their leisure. They know nothing about the tribe, and the tribal leaders are telling them, "These people are going to take up all the resources."

This big campaign that was put on by the chief and his adherents, they put out a lot of inflammatory literature and had secret meetings. People were bombarded day and night; tribal employees sent letters to the local papers saying, "We don't want 'em. Nobody wants 'em." Some of them are only Indians when they go down to the clinic. But if it had been explained to them that the Freedmen have a legal right to citizenship, the majority of people would not have done this. And remember, the majority of people weren't voting. They are "playing the race card" because so few people understand the tribe's history.

What does the future look like for Black Cherokees and the Cherokee Nation as a whole? Despite the big lobbyists for the Cherokee Nation, the little people like the Freedman have a chance to see justice prevail. With the support of the Congressional Black Congress and the congressional inquiries, the Freedmen will see justice. We have good attorneys and a good precedent with the Seminole case. The American people are outraged about how Indian leaders have abused the Freedmen. We want the American people to know that if they're concerned about this, there are things they can do. They can let the members of the House and the Senate know. Everybody should know about the Freedmen.

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Beandrea Davis is a freelance writer in Oakland, California.
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Title Annotation:Q & A
Author:Davis, Beandrea
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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