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Smith: Cherokees vote for Indian blood

On March 3, the citizens of the Cherokee Nation voted for the third time in the past 30 years on the citizenship clause of our Constitution. This time, the Cherokee people turned out in record numbers and voted overwhelmingly to exclude non-Indian members who had only enrolled in the Cherokee Nation within the past year. The Cherokee people voted to be just like almost every other Indian tribe in the country: an Indian government made up of Indian citizens.

The history of non-Indians with the Cherokee Nation dates back a long time, and any discussion of the latest citizenship vote should include the basics of Cherokee history. Cherokee Nation citizens must prove that they had an ancestor on the Final Rolls of the Cherokee Nation in 1906, which included categories for Cherokee, Delaware and Shawnee Indians, as well as white citizens and freedmen. ''freedmen'' is a federal, legal term used to describe descendants of former slaves and freed African-Americans associated with the Cherokee Nation prior to statehood. In 1906, when there was an effort to liquidate the Cherokee Nation, the freedmen, unlike former slaves in the Deep South, received allotments - cash payments from the Cherokee Nation.

In 1975, the Cherokee Constitution, approved by Cherokees by a 6 - 1 margin, provided that citizenship include only Cherokees, Shawnees and Delawares. In 2001, the Cherokee Nation's highest court ruled that exclusion of descendants of freedmen and other non-Indians in 1975 was constitutional. In 2003, the Cherokee people voted again on a new Constitution and affirmed that Cherokee citizens should be those of Cherokee, Shawnee and Delaware by blood, and to exclude descendants of freedmen and other non-Indians. However, in 2006, with new judges on the highest court, the court reversed itself and held that the 1975 and 2003 Constitution language was not clear enough to exclude descendants of freedmen and other non-Indians, and that the language for exclusion needed to be clearer.

Cherokee citizens then started a petition calling for a special election. That led to the vote on March 3, in which 77 percent of the Cherokee voted to exclude non-Indians who had only been eligible for citizenship since the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruling in March of 2006.

Representatives of the freedmen have played the race card, screaming that the actions of the Cherokee people were based on racism. In response to such harsh and unfounded criticism, I must respond on behalf of my people. Cherokees are a warm, open, tolerant group of people. The Cherokee Nation's citizenship policy is one of the most open and inclusive in all of Indian country. Of the 270,000 Cherokee citizens, there are many who are racially black, racially white, racially Hispanic and racially Asian. However, each one shares a common bond of having a Cherokee ancestor on the base roll of 1906. Regardless of their race, they are citizens of the Cherokee Nation and are accepted and are part of the Cherokee family.

The fact is the Dawes Roll is the base roll of 1906 and if you had Indian blood, you are listed as an Indian. Jack Baker, an esteemed genealogist, provided abundant proof of that. In fact, the freedmen's own witness, professor Dan Littlefield, has stated that only a very few of those with Cherokee and freedmen blood were put on the freedman roll instead of the Cherokee by blood roll. Experts on all sides of the issue agree that the non-Indian rolls of the Cherokee Nation were made up almost entirely of non-Indians. It is unfortunate that some of these non-Indians chose to play a race card and choose to play victim rather than explaining to the Cherokee people why these descendants should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

Courts have repeatedly held that only the Cherokee people can decide who can be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. That fundamental decision is not the principal chief's, the tribal council's or even the courts'; it is the right of the Cherokee people to do so. In this election, they made that decision overwhelmingly - that to be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, you have to have a common bond, a Cherokee, Delaware or Shawnee ancestor on the base roll. That is certainly not too much to ask.

So why did the Cherokees vote in record numbers to require a common ancestor on the rolls of the Cherokee Nation by blood? We all know that there are too many Cherokees to provide with per capita payments from gaming proceeds. The vast majority of Cherokees do not use the services of health care, housing and education. It seems that many Cherokees chose to exclude non-Indians because of a sense of identity. Cherokees are Indians. They are the indigenous and aboriginal people of this land and there is a commonality of history, language, heritage and culture. It finally came to a point that non-Indians were claiming to be Cherokee when, in fact, they are not. So the vote was an affirmation of identity as Indian for those voting.

Simply, the Cherokees said the Cherokee Nation is an Indian tribe made up of Indians, just like other Indian tribes all over the country. Other tribes criticize the Cherokee Nation for being too inclusive, for not having a minimum blood quantum. We see citizenship as an inherent right through blood lineage. We see ourselves as a community within other Indian tribes and nations in this country, just like the Navajos, Apaches, Nez Perce and the Choctaws, who each also require their members to be Indians.

Chad Smith has been the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma since 1999.