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Jasper: Disinformation campaign undermines Cherokee rights

In June 2007, legislation was introduced in Congress that would undermine the collective human rights of an Indian nation, by allowing Congress to determine citizenship in an Indian nation.

California Rep. Diane Watson framed her legislation, House Bill 2824, as ''the treaty rights'' to citizenship of ''black freedmen'' vs. the sovereign right of the historically racist Cherokee Nation ''to expel their black citizens.''

Watson has portrayed her cause as ''the most significant civil rights movement of this century.'' She claimed the Cherokees ''equaled if not surpassed the most vitriolic attacks against African Americans in the once segregated South.'' Considering the condemnable history of slavery and the harm the legislation could cause Indian nations, her statements appear extreme and uninformed.

Regrettably, the press supported her claims - discrimination by lawless Indians against oppressed blacks. Good people, including respected members of Congress and national civil rights organizations, believed the story.

An intensive investigation to determine the facts has revealed that Watson re-wrote huge portions of Cherokee history to make her damaging claims. ''The past actions of the Cherokee Nation belie its commitment to the rule of law,'' she told Congress.

The investigation suggests a campaign of disinformation. Misinformation may result from carelessness, and may benefit either side. Disinformation is created. It uses errors and omissions to obscure truth and to influence public opinion. Here is Watson's version (in italics) of Cherokee history, starting in 1860:

''The Cherokee Nation fought on the side of the Confederacy in order to preserve its southern slaveholding tradition of trafficking in the ownership and sale of black slaves.''

According to 1860 census figures, more than 98 percent of Cherokee citizens did not own slaves. Slaves were owned by 296 Indians and 82 non-Indians, less than 2 percent of the Cherokee population.

''The Cherokees signed a treaty with the Confederate States of America and fought against the United States ...''

At least two-thirds of the Cherokees fought for the Union throughout the war. The treaty with the Confederacy (in effect for less than 16 months) occurred because the United States failed to honor treaty obligations to protect the Cherokees, who were then surrounded by Confederate forces. In the words of the elected chief, ''It is not desirable that we should stand alone. The preservation of our rights and of our existence are above every other consideration.''

''The Cherokee Nation emancipated all its slaves in 1863. In 1866, the Cherokee Nation signed a new treaty with the United States Government that formally ended slavery ...''

The Cherokee Nation, as a nation, owned no slaves. The 1866 treaty merely recognizes that the nation had ''voluntarily'' and ''forever'' abolished slavery three years earlier, two months after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Additionally, the Cherokee Act abolishing slavery was adopted almost three years before ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, doing the same. The Cherokee Nation and the newly formed state of West Virginia are apparently the only two governments to abolish slavery (where slave-holding had existed) during the Civil War.

[The Treaty of 1866] ''made the former slaves of the Cherokee citizens of the Cherokee Nation.''

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The Treaty of 1866 provides that the freedmen ''shall have all the rights of native Cherokees.'' The 1866 amended Cherokee Constitution provides for them to become citizens.

At this point, Watson claims the present-day descendants of freedmen have treaty entitlements and that the nation's denial of citizenship is racist. It is deeply disturbing that a member of Congress is using the racism card to blatantly deny the rights of the Cherokee Nation. There is no question of the damage African Americans have suffered due to racism. It is naive to think American Indians have not also suffered from racism.

''My legislation only seeks redress [from] the Cherokee Nation for the restoration of their treaty rights that entitle them to citizenship ...''

The descendants of freedmen had such treaty rights until a 1902 act of Congress placed a limitation on future entitlements to enrollment. It provided that citizens living on Sept. 1, 1902, be enrolled and that ''no child born thereafter to a citizen ... shall be entitled to enrollment.'' Cherokee citizens, including the descendants of freedmen, voted to ratify this act; accepting the loss of future entitlements to enrollment, but knowing that each man, woman and child would then be allotted 110 acres of Cherokee land and their proportionate share of other tribal property.

Entitlements to enrollment were legal rights; different from the nation's inherent right to determine its citizens. The Act of 1906 also establishes a cutoff date according to residency requirements. Watson may not have known about these acts of Congress. She refused all invitations to meet with representatives of the Cherokee Nation.

''In May 2003, the Cherokee Nation held an election for its officers and the ratification of a new Constitution. ... The Cherokee Freedmen were not permitted to vote ...''

The more than 1,500 enrolled citizens, who are descendants of the freedmen and have also established Indian ancestry, were able to vote. The thousands of black, brown, Latina, Asian and white citizens who have also established Indian ancestry were able to vote.

[In 2006,] ''the tribal courts ruled in favor of Lucy Allen, a Freedmen descendant who sued for citizenship.''

The March 2006 Cherokee Court ruling determined only that if the 1975 Cherokee Constitution ''was intended to limit membership to citizens by blood, it should have said so'' and required more ''specific language.'' This ruling overturned three decades of court decisions to the contrary, but repeatedly recognized that ''the Cherokee citizenry has the ultimate authority to define tribal citizenship.'' However, the ruling allowed for immediate enrollment of non-Indians in the Cherokee Nation.

The March 2007 vote to amend the Cherokee Constitution provided the more ''specific language'' that had been required by the court. Cherokee citizens reaffirmed what they had already believed to be true. Indian ancestry is required for citizenship in their Indian nation. In the meantime, the 2,867 non-Indians who had been enrolled since the 2006 ruling were no longer entitled to enrollment. This presented a dilemma that is being decided in courts today.

The 2007 vote to amend its constitution was a crucial vote for the future of the Cherokee Nation and its own sense of identity. Unlimited enrollment of non-Indians claiming the right to be enrolled could debilitate the nation and its resources. It would undermine the nation's right to determine its own citizens, and therefore undermine the integrity of the nation.

Watson's actions serve to deny the Cherokee Nation's right to preserve and revitalize its own culture for its continued existence as a distinct people. The right of Cherokee leadership to ''full and effective participation'' in decisions affecting the Cherokee people continues to be rejected. This right is essential to democratic processes.

Indian nations know their own history. Without respect for the right of ''full and effective participation'' of Indian nations in decisions affecting them, other rights can be ignored. Respect for these rights is the obligation of the U.S. government under legally binding international human rights treaties that the government has voluntarily ratified. Otherwise, a member of Congress, using disinformation, can gather support to determine what's best for any Indian nation and threaten its very survival.

Suzanne Jasper is the director of First Peoples Human Rights Coalition, a nonprofit educational organization specifically focusing on the human rights of indigenous peoples. A timeline summary of Cherokee history recently was sent to various members of Congress, along with a brief overview of certain fundamental human rights of indigenous peoples.