The Final Word Less One - on any subject anywhere any time that the author finds interesting -

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Who Belongs?

Ever had that rotten experience of not being picked for the team, or being picked last, or being otherwise excluded from the group you wanted to join? It's one of those formative experiences that divides the dorks from the cool kids.

But to put that experience in perspective consider what happened to slaves: kidnapped from their homes in Africa, shackled in the holds of ships for a long voyage to the New World and then auctioned off like cattle to the highest bidder. The American Constitution counted a slave as three fifths of a person in deciding how many Representatives to apportion to a state. When Emancipation came, some folks didn't want to admit that the former slaves, born in this country and speaking only English, were Americans. But although the "Back to Africa" movement contributed to the formation of Liberia, it's really impossible to say that African Americans are not as American as apple pie or baseball.

Now a new indignity for some of the descendants of slavery: the Cherokee, the second largest Indian tribe in the USA, is trying to re-define who is and is not a member of the tribe. On August 29, the Cherokee Supreme Court upheld a 2007 vote that removes potentially 25,000 people from eligibility for the tribal rolls.

These are the Freedmen, people descended from slaves held by the Cherokee. Their ancestors participated as slaves in the infamous 1838 'Trail of Tears'. After the Civil War, the Cherokee accepted their former slaves as members of the tribe. Back then, the added numbers meant added power and influence; also the tribe was acknowledging the blood tie between slaves and owners. Now, 150 years from the start of the Civil War, and right before a new tribal election, the Cherokee are trying to undo that decision.

The Cherokee Nation defines citizenship this way on its website: to be eligible for Cherokee Nation citizenship, individuals must provide documents connecting them to an enrolled lineal ancestor who is listed on the Dawes Roll with a blood degree. CDIB/Tribal Citizenship is traced through natural parents. In cases of adoption, CDIB/Citizenship must be proven through a biological parent to an ancestor registered on the Dawes Roll.

This is the definition of a Cherokee determined by tribal vote in March 2007. Leaving aside the troubling issue of a majority of the tribe voting to exclude a minority of the tribe, it is understandable that the tribe wants to tighten the definition of who belongs. In fairness, this decision also excludes the category known as "Intermarried Whites".  Membership is valuable because the tribe provides health services, etc. But I think this vote is going to come back and haunt the Cherokee for a long time to come.

The DAWES FINAL ROLL is a list of people from the Five Civilized Tribes removed to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) during the 1800's. The list covers only "Indians in Indian Territory" from 1898 to 1914 who received land under the provisions of the Dawes Act. It also lists those Freedmen who received land allotments as provided for in the Dawes Act.

The problem with trying to tighten the definition of the "tribe" to only those blood descendants on the Dawes Roll is that the descendants of slaves have a hard time tracing their ancestry. It's a fact that male slave owners misbehaved with the women they owned. Saying that slaves were "part of the family" wasn't just a congenial expression; it was often the literal truth. For the tribe now to exclude the descendants of slaves is throwing the baby out without even running the bath. If the Cherokee don't going to accept the Dawes Final Roll as its basis for membership and include the Freedmen, then a can of worms is opened. What's going to be the last word--genetic testing?

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