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Freedmen descendants struggle to maintain their Cherokee identity

ANADARKO, Okla. - Belonging to a federally recognized tribe is, in most cases, a simple matter, based on ancestry and meeting a blood quantum requirement as set forth in a tribal constitution. But for the Cherokee Nation, it has been a rather complex issue since the end of the Civil War.

At differing times in their history, Cherokee Nation citizens have been Cherokee by ancestry or from the portions of the Shawnee and Delaware tribes that were made Cherokee citizens. In addition, Cherokee Nation citizens before the Dawes Rolls of the early 20th century included intermarried whites and descendants of freed African slaves.

Since the reorganization of the Cherokee Nation in 1976 and subsequent ratifications of newer constitutions, there has remained the issue of whether to include freedmen descendants and those descendants of the intermarried whites as listed on the Dawes Rolls. As it currently stands, membership into the tribe is based on having an ancestor of Cherokee, Shawnee or Delaware blood on the final Dawes Rolls, and there is no blood quantum requirement.

Within the past year, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruled that the freedmen could be considered citizens, but that there would have to be a constitutional vote to ban them from membership. A special election on March 3 was the result, in which it was determined that the descendants from these two groups would no longer be counted as citizens. In a statement published by Indian Country Today, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith wrote that ''the Cherokees said the Cherokee Nation is an Indian tribe made up of Indians, just like the other Indian tribes all over the country.''

Mike Miller, official spokesman for the Cherokee Nation, reaffirmed Smith's statements.

''The Cherokee voters demanded it,'' Miller said. ''They had a petition calling for a special election - a constitutional amendment. The petition was challenged and the Cherokee Nation Court ruled that the petition could go forward. The special election was called for by the people and the vote was held.''

Miller also said that those who are descended from the freedmen rolls had only been citizens for one year. But according to Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, freedmen were an integral part of the history of Cherokee Nation, as they were given full citizenship rights by federal treaty in 1866.

''After the Civil War, the freedmen people continued to speak Cherokee, went to tribal schools, went to ceremonial grounds and held office,'' said Vann. ''It amazes me when tribal officials get up and say, 'These people never voted. They never held office. They never participated. They were just there.' The freedmen people were opposed to the allotments. They did as much as they were able to keep the treaty going.''

Vann also said that many of those who the Dawes Commission listed as freedmen did have Cherokee ancestry, but were placed on the freedmen rolls as a way to get white settlers more land.

When asked whether freedmen were historically considered citizens of the Cherokee Nation, Miller admitted that they were. ''But for the last 30 years,'' said Miller, ''the status has been that descendants of the non-Indians were not citizens of the Cherokee Nation.''

Views toward the freedmen from within the Cherokee Nation are not one-sided. A voice on behalf of the Cherokee freedmen is Taylor Keen, of Tulsa, who is a representative-at-large of the Cherokee Nation Council. Keen's father, the late Ralph Keen, had served as chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation.

''I remember at a younger age one of my siblings asking my dad, 'Why are there black people who are Cherokee?''' Keen said. ''He, in no uncertain terms, explained to us the history of slavery within Cherokee Nation and our role in the Civil War in signing a treaty with the Confederacy and subsequent reparations of war by the United States on the Cherokee Nation.''

Keen's opinion of the recent constitutional amendment is that it is ''a reckless application of sovereignty.''

''By this vote that we just had, by disenfranchising the Cherokee freedmen, we have, in essence, violated the Treaty of 1866, perhaps severing the Cherokee Nation's legal continuum, which is a fizzled foundation on the part of federal recognition,'' said Keen.

Keen stated that the options left to the freedmen included federal district court, review by the BIA or congressional intervention.

''Historically, citizenship in the Cherokee Nation has been an inclusive process,'' said Keen. ''It was only at the time of the Dawes Commission there was ever a racial definition of what Cherokee meant. The fact that it was brought back up today certainly tells me that there is a statute of racism.''

According to Miller, if the freedmen descendants were to be reinstated as Cherokee citizens, it would have to be through another constitutional vote.

''The Cherokee people have voted to amend the constitution once, and they could vote to amend the constitution again,'' said Miller. ''There's no telling if they'll have another chance, and if they do, what the vote will be. That's something for the Cherokee people to decide.''