Chad Smith, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, claims that amending the Cherokee Nation Constitution to restrict membership to the descendents of the Dawes Rolls, a move that expels approximately 2,800 descendants of the freedmen from the nation, is an exercise of sovereignty. In a statement issued by the Cherokee Nation, Smith said: ”The Cherokee people have exercised their most basic democratic right, the right to vote. Their voice is clear as to who should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation. No one else has the right to make that determination. It was a right of self-government, affirmed in 23 treaties with Great Britain and the United States, and paid dearly with 4,000 lives on the Trail of Tears.”
Smith is right. The power and inherent right of tribal nations to determine and define their own citizenry is one of the strongest rights of self-determination that indigenous nations have retained during our more than 200 years’ experience with interference by the U.S. colonial government. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized this right. No one should determine tribal citizenship except the tribe itself.
We, as citizens of other sovereign indigenous nations, are absolutely and completely compelled to support the right of the Cherokee Nation to exercise this power. But at the same time, it makes many of us squirm in our chairs to feel compelled to support an action that involves the active disenrollment of members, an action that results in stripping away citizenship rights of certain individuals, especially where issues of race, slavery and historical racism are involved. Should a person really be stripped of tribal citizenship merely because part of their ancestry can be traced to the slaves once held by the Cherokee? Can we truly support this move, which is a deeply disturbing trend in Indian country? It places us in a moral dilemma.
Some in Indian country and in the wider U.S. society advocate an appeal to the BIA to intervene in tribal enrollment decisions. However, if we are serious about self-determination,
then we must never turn to our colonial administrators for help when, through an act of self-determination, something happens within an indigenous nation that we disagree with. To do so would be to act like the ”wards” that our ”guardian” Great White Father wishes upon us rather than the self-determining sovereigns that we wish to be. So, how can those of us from other indigenous nations or even citizens of non-indigenous nations (like the United States or Canada) reconcile this moral dilemma? How do we support the principle, yet disapprove of an action? How do we, as citizens of other sovereign nations, register our moral disagreement with this act of disenrollment, yet still respect the right of the Cherokee Nation to make its own enrollment decision?
In order to be sovereign nations, we must act like sovereign nations. But that does not mean that in order to support self-determination in principle, we need to agree with every decision of other sovereign nations. Nation-states in the international system do not always agree with the internal actions of other nation-states, yet they nearly always accept the principle of the equal sovereignty of all nation-states within the international system (with certain notable exceptions like the Iraq invasion or humanitarian interventions). When a nation-state, a group of nation-states, or private citizens of other nation-states disagree with the internal actions of another nation-state, there are a number of possible avenues of action.
First, sovereign nation-states can register a diplomatic complaint with the government of the offending nation-state. This is done all the time in the international system. The U.S. Department of State often drafts and delivers letters of protest to the diplomats and officials of other governments over areas of disagreement. Likewise, the executives of our indigenous nations have the right, if not the moral responsibility, to send letters and make phone calls of complaint directly to the executives of the Cherokee Nation, expressing their concern over the disenrollment decision. This can be done while supporting the inherent right of an indigenous nation to determine its own membership.
Another tactic which can be employed by other indigenous nations or the private citizens of other nations is the art of moral persuasion, or ”moral suasion,” as it has also been termed. This involves a campaign of exposure and embarrassment. This tactic has most often been employed in international human rights campaigns, with the purpose being to expose the immoral government action in the media and open up international discussion in order to embarrass the target government into changing its policy to better conform to international norms. This was done in the early days of the campaign against apartheid in South Africa and has been used often by groups like Amnesty International to urge governments to stop human rights abuses.
Finally, follow the money. Those of us who find the actions of the sovereign Cherokee Nation disturbing or morally questionable also have some economic options. Again, sovereign nations take these actions against other sovereign nations all the time. Witness the economic embargos against Cuba and North Korea, and the sanctions that were placed by many nations against South Africa in the last days of apartheid. In none of these cases was there overt intervention (setting aside for the moment the Bay of Pigs invasion) by other nations in the internal affairs of another nation and the legal sovereignty of the target nations was respected. Following this model, we have a right to boycott all Cherokee businesses and still respect the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation. Even the U.S. federal government could conceivably express its outrage at the decision of the Cherokee Nation, not by intervening directly and exercising colonial authority as it has usually done, but rather, by cutting off or threatening to cut off non-treaty-based federally funded programs to the Cherokee Nation. In fact, the federal government did exercise this option by withholding funding when the Seminole Nation disenfranchised its freedmen.
Through all of these avenues, we cannot only find our way out of what appears at first glance to be a moral dilemma, but we also advance our own sovereignty in the process. We do not have to sit back and accept all the decisions of a fellow sovereign in order to respect their sovereignty and show solidarity with them. Nation-states in the international system do not; and we should not, either. We have options available to us that allow us to register our moral protest at another state’s actions which will, at the same time, help us act more like the self-determining sovereign nations that we are.
Sheryl Lightfoot, Keweenaw Bay Ojibwe, is a Ph.D. candidate, International Relations and Comparative Politics Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota, and chair of the American Indian Policy Center, St. Paul, Minn.