Race has been and will continue to be an issue in this year’s national elections. But now it seems that tribal affiliation can be added to the list of candidate policy positions. It was recently reported that Sen. Barack Obama attempted to clarify his position on the rights and affiliation of Cherokee freedmen. Freedmen, the descendants of mixed Indian and freed African people, have filed an injunction to prohibit the Cherokee tribe from ousting them from tribal rolls.
Sen. Obama made it clear that in the dispute between the Cherokee Nation and Cherokee freedmen, he supports the tribe’s right to determine tribal affiliation. He also said that he did not agree with the decision, but ”tribal sovereignty must mean that the place to resolve intertribal disputes is the tribe itself.” This is just the latest iteration of a storied battle for tribal self-determination within the Cherokee Nation. The conflict resulted from the Congressional Black Caucus attempting to get presumptive Democratic nominee Obama to support their efforts to prohibit the Cherokee Nation from disenrolling freedmen by withholding treaty obligations.
House Bill 2824, a bill that seeks to ”sever United States’ government relations with the Cherokee Nation” until full tribal citizenship is restored to Cherokee freedmen, was introduced in 2007. Supported by 35 members of the CBC, H.R. 2824 was a reaction to Cherokee freedmen’s appeals to U.S. lawmakers to weigh in on their removal from the Cherokee tribal roll. This new conflict over tribal sovereignty and what it means to be part of a tribe finds its roots in the relocation and allotment policies of the 19th century.
During the mid-1800s, the Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their homelands in the Southeastern U.S. in what is known as the Trail of Tears. Their expulsion to reservation territory in Oklahoma was a policy implemented to make land available in the East for European settlers. During the removal, the Civil War was raging and several tribes had sided with either Confederate or Union forces. New treaties were forged between the U.S. government and newly relocated tribes during Reconstruction. And tribes that had kept African slaves up until then were forced to free them. With the freeing of slaves, who had been deeply involved in the culture of traditional Cherokee life and who spoke the language, there were many marital unions formed between Cherokees and blacks.
As it had been for hundreds of years, the Cherokee accepted these new in-laws and children of mixed heritage as full members of the tribe regardless of the foreign concept of ”race.” Formalized through treaty documents, the self-determination of tribes in matters of enrollment were left to the tribal governments. During this time, Cherokee ”freedmen” became prominent business owners and leaders within the tribe. The age-old system of adoption and cultural inclusion was successful and functioned as it always had.
But as Indian policy morphed from removal to assimilation, the U.S. government introduced a new paradigm – blood quantum. Quantum was an attempt to influence tribal self-determination. By and large, the tribes had been fairly homogeneous; and in cases like that of the freedmen, the Cherokee Nation had accepted outsiders that had already been initiated into tribal culture. But by introducing this new concept of race, a system based solely upon ancestry, the U.S. government had devised a way to whittle down the tribes and their subsequent obligations to them over time.
Faced with what appeared to be an arbitrary requirement, the tribes adopted blood quantum requirements. And at the time, many tribes required that individuals have one-quarter or one-half ”Indian blood” to be a tribal member. In this way, the criteria for tribal enrollment came to be based solely on ancestry.
The fallacy of blood quantum has had tremendous repercussions over the last century. In many ways, it has divided tribes and created a class system where a person’s degree of ”Indian blood” is what determines their status in a community. Before quantum, tribal members were accepted based on their willingness to sacrifice for and support the tribe and leaders were chosen because of their values and character rather than racial purity.
Due in no small part to the assimilation policy of blood quantum, the Cherokee Nation first started discussing whether Cherokee freedmen should have rights as citizens in the early 1980s. The combination of a forced paradigm shift, off-reservation populations that weren’t as connected to the cultural aspect of the tribe, and a century of racist federal policy targeting blacks and dwindling resources culminated in the 1990s with the first real attempts to oust Cherokee freedmen from the rolls. And in 2007, the Cherokee Nation, through an election fraught with voter disenfranchisement, passed a referendum that prohibited Cherokees designated as freedmen from being enrolled members.
The CBC and other lawmakers have attempted to make the case that this is a treaty issue and not one of sovereignty. They believe that because freedmen were ”granted” the same rights as Cherokees in treaty documents, this should carry through to their descendants today. I find it humorous that the same government that has implemented these policies is now trying to find fault with them.
I agree with Sen. Obama in that the Cherokee freedmen should continue to be recognized by the tribe but that the decision should come from the Cherokee Nation. He put it this way: ”Our nation has learned with tragic results that federal intervention in internal matters of Indian tribes is rarely productive – failed policies such as allotment and termination grew out of efforts to second-guess Native communities. That is not a legacy we want to continue.”
As our world becomes smaller, tribal nations will find that we have tribal members with African, European, American and even Asian descent. Tribal sovereignty must be respected and, as Sen. Obama has said, the tribes must not be interfered with in their process of determining membership. But the termination policies of the past, including blood quantum, must be abolished or they will continue to divide and conquer our communities, family by family.
It is time for us to make a change. It is time to for our tribal nations to evolve, back.
Keegan King, Acoma Pueblo, is the director of New Mexico Youth Organized, an organization that gets young people involved in politics in the state. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.