New York Times Debates Tribal Rights v. Racial Justice

The Cherokee Freedmen issue has been a topic of discussion over the past couple of weeks and with it Indian Country Today Media Network presents the latest as the New York Times offers up the topic of “Tribal Rights v. Racial Justice” in it’s Room for Debate.

The debate features eight authors from professors to lawyers to Cherokee Freedmen descendants and Cherokee members. Below are excerpts from their articles at the Times. Full articles are linked with the authors names:

The intersection of race and citizenship in Indian Country never fails to create a tragicomedy of tribal politics. Whenever tribes are under attack about membership policies, the reliable Hail Mary is “sovereignty,” even when it bears little relation to federal intrusion.”Kevin Noble Maillard, law professor, Syracuse University and Seminole Nation of Oklahoma member

The Cherokee Nation, like all sovereign nations, determines its citizenship by a Constitution approved by our people. No federal court has ever told the Cherokee Nation how to determine our citizenship. The U.S. and United Nations policies and courts have always told us the opposite. The most fundamental right we have as a nation is self-determination of our own citizenship. There is no treaty anywhere that says otherwise.”Cara Cowan-Watts, speaker, Cherokee Nation Council and board member of the National Congress of American Indians

The Cherokee Nation chose to remain a weak sovereign by excluding the Freedmen descendants, about 1,000 of whom were registered to vote in the coming election for Principal Chief. The disenfranchisement of the Freedmen – after they had voted in a prior election that resulted in a virtual tie, forcing this second election in which their votes will be provisional — all but guaranteed that the candidate who supported the expulsion of the Freedmen would win, and the candidate who cultivated their support would lose. This is the worst form of racial politics.”Matthew L.M. Fletcher, professor of law at Michigan State University and editor of Turtle Talk law blog

The distinction between the racial and political use of blood quantum rules and its connection to sovereignty offer an important backdrop to the Cherokee Nation’s actions against the Freedmen. Without doubt, the Cherokee Nation engaged in blatant racial discrimination. Yet, as an expression of sovereignty, the Cherokee Nation’s decision to expel the Freedmen could arguably be viewed as a valid, albeit utterly troubling, exercise of the right of self-determination.”Rose Cuison Villazor, Hofstra University Law School

But at the end of the day, people need to ask themselves a crucial question: ‘Who decides who is an Indian?’ Does the United States government decide? Does misinformed public opinion decide? Or do Indians decide? And the issue itself is not one of race, but of how best to preserve Indian identity.”Heather Williams, Freedmen descendant

It is said that knowing one’s history is the best way not to repeat it. If that is true, the Cherokees don’t fully understand their history. The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the expulsion of most black Cherokees comes as no surprise given the tribe’s history of separation from and distaste for African Americans. The Cherokee were a people who apparently had no racial bias against people of African ancestry before European contact. Early in their history, they adopted a former slave woman of African ancestry into the tribe and exercised their sovereignty to keep her as a citizen of the tribe.”Carla D. Pratt, law professor, Penn State University

The Cherokee people and the progeny of those once enslaved in their territory share a story. It is a story of colonialism, slavery, removal, Civil War, injustice, survival and resilience, yet and still, one that their ancestors shaped together. I appeal to the enfranchised members of the Cherokee Nation to be the Real People that they are – human, humane and true to the promises of the past.”Tiya Miles, historian, University of Michigan

“Accountability is needed not merely because the Cherokee invite criticism and federal interference in their affairs by continuing to discriminate against Freedmen descendants, but because it is the culturally appropriate and ethically right thing to do.”Joanne Barker, Lenape, associate professor, American Indian Studies


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New York Times Debates Tribal Rights v. Racial Justice