Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 23 September 2011

blood quandry

the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has been much in the news lately. (note: not to be confused with the Eastern Band of North Carolina or the Keetoowah Band of Oklahoma, which are part of the larger recognized Cherokee tribe, but separate entities with distinct tribal governments. other groups using the designation “Cherokee” are not officially granted recognition.)

so who are the Freedmen? this is the name given to Cherokee slaves who participated in the Trail of Tears death march and were mandated, by the US government, to be included in the Cherokee Nation in 1866. in the 18th & 19th centuries, the Cherokee (in a general sense) made great efforts to be considered “civilized” by the US government – largely because Jefferson had intimated that they may be left to their own devices in their traditional homelands if they played along with European-American social norms. a glance at not only history, but at the still-prevalent conditions and difficulties that native peoples face in their own country tells the rest of the story well enough. the policy of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma for tribal enrollment is the ability to trace ancestry to the Dawes Roll, a document created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs around the turn of the 20th century, motivated by the federal government’s desire to break up tribal land holdings into individual allotments on the theory that individual property ownership would make the Cherokee more American and less “Indian.” (let’s not even touch upon the problems inherent in this document at present. oof.)

what’s all the fuss? there is a lot of sturm-und-drang over whether Freedmen should be included in an indigenous tribe. the Cherokee Court upheld a decision to expel them, which stirred this up anew. the NY Times Room for Debate hosted this excellent series of short commentaries from experts across an array of fields, many of them indigenous people. the US government has become involved by threatening to revoke funds if Freedmen are not reinstated to the tribe. the matter is further complicated by last month’s disputed vote for the new chief of the Nation, which the Freedmen participated in. the Acting-Chief has made provisions for Freedmen to participate in the second round of balloting, but no final decision has yet been reached regarding their tribal affiliation in the long term. (side note: Freedmen were not technically American citizens in the 19th and 20th centuries. Native Americans were not recognized as US citizens until 1924 and were not given clear and definitive voting rights even then. it was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Native Americans became unequivocally franchised. voting rights matter.)

there are LOTS of issues that cloud this one. it’s very easy to say that descendants of Freedmen have every right to continue to be part of the Cherokee Nation. sovereignty and identity are at stake – the core signification of being a tribe.

these issues strike me hard. is there anything more fraught than the question of who is native? it seems to lie pulsing at the center of many indigenous battles. i find Kevin Noble Maillard’s NYT piece particularly compelling: “Real Indians were created by Real White People.” it’s a classic ‘defining the Self by the Other’ sort of colonial trope, but it resonates. the badge of “Real Indian” carries incredible burdens and baggage. the badge of “Wannabe Indian” carries its own stigmas.

i intend to comment on this further, but for me the question of the Freedmen is ultimately a question about what the Cherokee Nation wants to stand for.

the US government should not get involved (not that that’s ever stopped it, within or without its own borders). and i hope that the people of CN Oklahoma will look long at what they stand to gain by the various courses of action open to them. i am not enrolled in any Cherokee tribe (although i hope to go through the process of vetting my ancestry after my grandmother does). but i would be proud to see tribal sovereignty (of this or any other Nation) asserted by affirming the human rights and human dignity that have often been denied to native peoples by outsiders.

(disclosure note: i am not a Native authority. i was not raised in any indigenous culture. my family has done research that is ongoing, and we are taking an active interest in learning about where we come from. i welcome correction of anything that may be misstated here. this post represents my understanding of Cherokee history and governance based on research that i have undertaken, and my own interpretation of that information. i speak only for myself.)


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