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Principal Chief Chad Smith speaks on freedmen issue

WASHINGTON - Cherokee history is broad, complex, ongoing and irreducible to the Oklahoma tribe's current relationship with its freedmen members - descendants of slaves and free blacks who lived among the Cherokee in the 19th century.

That was one of the strongest messages to emerge from a July 7 screening and panel discussion of the film ''The Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy.'' The documentary and partial re-enactment, which features actor Wes Studi speaking Cherokee in narrative interludes, brought a level of detail to the ill-famed forced removals of the 1830s. The voice-over narrative brought a rare clarity to the divisions within the tribe itself during the crucial decades preceding its relocation to what was then known as Oklahoma Territory.

But the division that has garnered international attention and hostility in Congress today concerns the Cherokee freedmen. The film stated that the Cherokee disenfranchised their slaves as early as 1828; and they voted in effect to withdraw the citizenship of freedmen descendants in March, for the third time in 30 years according to Principal Chief Chad Smith. The BIA and the courts intervened. The upshot is that the freedmen remain tribal citizens, negotiations continue between the freedmen and the tribe on measures to resolve a festering point of contention, and a bill that would cripple the tribe financially remains before committees of Congress, while yet another committee has pledged to address the issue in a manner yet to be determined.

When the post-film panel discussion gave way to questions from the audience, the freedmen issue came up several times. Smith said the media has framed the issue as one of race, and reiterated that it is instead an issue of Indian identity. Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma citizenship is not based on blood quantum, appearance or color, he explained. ''It's based upon having a common ancestor on our base roll ... So we don't care what color you are, what background you are. As long as you have that common Cherokee ancestor, you're entitled to be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.''

An 1866 treaty between the tribe and the United States conferred citizenship on former slaves of the Cherokee, but their names do not appear on base rolls. By limiting membership to the lineage of Cherokee ancestors on base rolls, Cherokee voters have tried to cast out the freedmen.

In response to a reporter's question, Smith reviewed the regular grave challenges American history has offered to Cherokee existence. Among them: ''Removal. The American Civil War. We lost ... 2,500 people fighting for the war, the American Civil War, 4,000 widows and orphans, in liberating former slaves.''

With that, Smith had drawn a nuanced but clear comparison between the removal era, culminating in the Trail of Tears, and the Civil War roots of the current crisis over the freedmen. The background here is that a similarity emerges in the betrayal of the Cherokee, and the poor choices left them. Just as government betrayal and the self-interest or plain greed of ordinary Americans forced the Cherokee onto the Trail of Tears, so the Union's abandonment of the deep South during the early Civil War years confronted the Cherokee with the same choice, between adaptation or extinction: either come to terms with the Confederacy, or court annihilation by rebel forces. For Oklahoma Territory was considered deep South in those days, and some of the era's worst atrocities had occurred in the territory due north, then known as ''bleeding Kansas.'' The Cherokee signed a treaty with the Confederacy.

But within a year, as the Union built up a protective strength, the Cherokee repudiated the Confederate treaty. They emancipated their slaves in 1863, and fought on the side of the Union until war's end. When a scheme to provide allotments for the emancipated former slaves fell through, the U.S. Army assigned them to reside among the tribe. They would come to be known as Black Cherokees or Cherokee freedmen. As a condition of remaining a tribe within the Union after the war, the nation signed the 1866 treaty that made the freedmen and their descendants tribal citizens. The interpretation of the treaty would be disputed to the present day.

The film screening and discussion took place in the National Museum of the American Indian's Rasmuson Theater, as part of the museum's ''Mother Earth Indian Summer Showcase.''

Smith declined a request for a more extensive interview on the freedmen issue saying, ''It's not what I came for.''