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Prince: We're imitating the enemy

Many intelligent American Indian thinkers have already pointed out why the freedmen have a legal right to remain in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Cherokee judge Steve Russell has noted in his Indian Country Today column that the freedmen have the right, according to Article 9 of the treaty between the United States and the Cherokee Nation of 1866, to be citizens of the Cherokee Nation. He has also reiterated the well-documented fact that many (and one might say nearly all) freedmen have Cherokee Indian blood that the racists who created the Dawes Rolls didn't note simply because of the pseudo-scientific belief that ''one drop'' of black blood negated all others - a fact that shows the nonsense of the claim that the removal of the freedmen from the Cherokee Nation is based on the desire to allow only those with Indian blood to be Indians.

In a ruling with fellow justices on the Cherokee Supreme Court, Cherokee Justice Stacy Leeds powerfully affirmed the legitimacy of the freedmen's claim to Cherokee citizenship, reinstating them in the nation. Furthermore, in her interview with Mike Tosee in ''Of Two Spirits: American Indian and African American Oral Histories,'' Leeds also noted that the idea that freedmen were forced on the Cherokee Nation is a myth because the Cherokee Nation chose to amend its own constitution to include a provision for freedmen citizenship, something another slave-owning Indian nation, the Chickasaw, chose not to do.

Finally, Steve Osburn, Cherokee/Delaware, remarked in a recent piece that while Principal Chief Chad Smith rails against the Congressional Black Caucus' move to deny economic aid to the Cherokee until they honor their treaty (a move Smith inaccurately refers to as termination), he successfully urged the United States to deny the Delaware federal recognition and funding. The Delaware were forced to remain part of the Cherokee Nation due to the same treaty provisions that are suddenly illegitimate when applied to the freedmen.

While these scholars have brilliantly argued that the removal of the freedmen from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is illegal by the nation's own laws, I argue that beyond being illegal, the removal of the freedmen is also unethical. Those who support freedmen removal are irresponsible heirs of Cherokee history and have internalized colonial expressions of sovereignty.

Cherokee people have historically been both oppressed and oppressors; but so often, that history of oppressing others is ignored or equivocated. It astounds me, as a Cherokee, that our people continued to own slaves after the Trail of Tears. After the Trail of Tears, after suffering and crying under horrendous brutality, the Cherokee knew exactly what dehumanization was: yet we continued to dehumanize others. We didn't have a problem with the unjust hierarchal system that gave some peoples rights at the expense of others; we only had a problem when it was used against us. While we cried on the Trail of Tears, we ignored the cries of blacks and, as a nation, were fine benefiting from the racial hierarchy when it allowed us to enslave others.

In 1831's Cherokee Nation v. State of Georgia, the Cherokee fought not to be under the jurisdiction of Georgia's laws which would have disenfranchised them. Yet in 1839, the Cherokee passed a law forbidding black and Cherokee marriages. The Cherokee also had violently enforced slave codes that further brutalized black people. We simultaneously fought the ways whites abused us as Native Americans while duplicating the abuses whites used against non-whites to subjugate black people.

I don't recount these facts out of self-hatred or contempt for our people, but in the interest of accuracy and responsibility. When we discuss history, we have to treat the freedmen with the same respect that we want to receive as indigenous people. None of us like rosy imaginings of the Thanksgiving story that romanticize the beginnings of genocide or bleary justifications for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School as a well-intentioned social policy. We Cherokee are a proud and incredible people, which is why we have to be honorable enough to face and apologize for the ugly parts of our history without making excuses or trying to hide the facts.

As Cherokee, we should ask how our ancestors could turn from our teachings of duyukduh, which emphasizes balance, interrelatedness and respect for all peoples. We should ask how our leaders and Beloved Women could condone such injustice - and why Smith continues to do so.

Smith claims that robbing the freedmen of their citizenship is a sovereign act, but Indian removal was also a sovereign act. Sovereign acts and moral acts are two very different things. Smith claims that the Congressional Black Caucus is challenging the Cherokee Nation's sovereignty. Actually, what the CBC is doing is showing that sovereignty has consequences, and that when nations make refugees of their people by revoking their citizenship, they risk facing economic sanctions. Backlash against a nation's sovereign decision is not denial of that nation's sovereignty. Being sovereign means you can make decisions freely - it doesn't mean others have to agree with those decisions.

What Smith wants isn't sovereignty, but sovereignty free of repercussions. It is interesting to me that the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is exercising sovereignty in the same way that the U.S. government has often exercised it - by oppressing a darker racial group. Ironically, we're exercising our sovereign right as indigenous people to behave just like our imperialist oppressors instead of acting in a way that reflects indigenous ways of knowing and being. We won't lose face or be less sovereign if we reinstate the freedmen. Rather, we'll be back on the path of duyukduh instead of on the path of imitating our colonizers.

As Cherokee people, we have to decide the right way to handle history, the honorable way to exercise sovereignty, and the correct way to bring forth justice and healing. We have to celebrate the beauty in our culture, soothe our wounds of oppression as well as the oppression we dealt out to others, and practice gadugi with all members of the community. We have a long road ahead of us, and recognizing the citizenship of the freedmen is the first step.

Shannon Prince, Cherokee (Aniyunwiya), is a Presidential Scholar, Inaugural Scholar, Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, and junior at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.