Cherokee Nation votes to expel 'freedmen'
Tribe revokes membership of an estimated 2,800 descendants of slaves
MSNBC News Services
Updated: 8:09 p.m. PT March 3, 2007
OKLAHOMA CITY - Cherokee Nation members voted Saturday to revoke the tribal citizenship of an estimated 2,800 descendants of the people the Cherokee once owned as slaves.
With a majority of districts reporting, 76 percent had voted in favor of an amendment to the tribal constitution that would limit citizenship to descendants of “by blood” tribe members as listed on the federal Dawes Commission’s rolls from more than 100 years ago.
The commission, set up by a Congress bent on breaking up Indians’ collective lands and parceling them out to tribal citizens, drew up two rolls, one listing Cherokees by blood and the other listing freedmen, a roll of blacks regardless of whether they had Indian blood.
Some opponents of the ballot question argued that attempts to remove freedmen from the tribe were motivated by racism.
Tribal officials said the vote was a matter of self-determination.
The petition drive for the ballot measure followed a March 2006 ruling by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court that said an 1866 treaty assured freedmen descendants of tribal citizenship. Since then, more than 2,000 freedmen descendants have enrolled as citizens of the tribe.
Big money at stake
Advocates of expelling the freedmen call it a matter of safeguarding tribal resources, which include a $350 million annual budget from federal and tribal revenue, and Cherokees' share of a gambling industry that, for U.S. tribes overall, takes in $22 billion a year. The grass-roots campaign for expulsion has given heavy play to warnings that keeping freedmen in the Cherokee Nation could encourage thousands more to sign up for a slice of the tribal pie.
"Don't get taken advantage of by these people. They will suck you dry," Darren Buzzard, an advocate of expelling the freedmen, wrote last summer in a widely circulated e-mail denounced by freedmen. "Don't let black freedmen back you into a corner. PROTECT CHEROKEE CULTURE FOR OUR CHILDREN. FOR OUR DAUGHTER[S] . . . FIGHT AGAINST THE INFILTRATION."
The issue is a remnant of the "peculiar institution" of Southern slavery and a discordant note set against the ringing statements of racial solidarity often voiced by people of color.
"It's oppressed people that's oppressing people," said Verdie Triplett, 53, an outspoken freedman of the Choctaw tribe, which, like the Cherokee, once owned black slaves.
Cherokees, along with Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles, were long known as the "Five Civilized Tribes" because they adopted many of the ways of their white neighbors in the South, including the holding of black slaves.
Court challenges by freedmen descendants seeking to stop the election were denied, but a federal judge left open the possibility that the case could be refiled if Cherokees voted to lift their membership rights.
© 2007 MSNBC InteractiveThe Associated Press and The Washington Post contributed to this report.