From “World in View” in the November-December 2011 issue of News & Letters:
by Gerry Emmett
A minority among the Cherokee Nation has pushed to exclude the descendants of the Nation’s Black freedmen from tribal membership. It is a move long in the works, since the Reagan era, often accompanied by crudely racist arguments. It is being challenged in court. Previously such moves have been overturned legally.
The current effort involves a bureaucratic 2006 rewriting of the Cherokee Constitution to accept the racist 1887 Dawes Commission’s definitions of tribal membership, and a low-turnout 2007 vote—in which only 6,702 out of 35,000 registered voters voted to disenfranchise their fellow tribal members.
U.S. history leaves a continuing opening for this, as the Dawes Commission (itself designed to destroy tribal self-government) counted freedmen separately from both full-blooded Cherokees and intermarried whites.
The effort to exclude Black Cherokee tribal members is reflective of the unique position the Cherokee occupy in U.S. history. As a “civilized” tribe, wealthier Cherokee were sometimes slaveholders; but, as Native Americans, they were also subjected to the genocidal Trail of Tears on which thousands died when they were uprooted from their Eastern homes and marched to Oklahoma. Many of their slaves made the same trip, facing the same hardships.
During the Civil War some Cherokee became allies of the Confederacy. But on Feb. 18, 1863, the pro-Union Cherokee National Council abolished slavery in the Nation. This division has continued among the Cherokee just as it has continued in the U.S.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Cherokee Nation was a cultural and economic influence on working-class Black culture. The essence of whatever it means to be an American will continue to be haunted by the great Black Cherokee Charlie Patton’s angry words: “I feel like choppin’, chips flyin’ everywhere / I went to the Nation, Lord, but I couldn’t stay there.”
Many great blues singers, in fact, had some Cherokee roots, from Leadbelly to Scrapper Blackwell and Champion Jack Dupree. The minority of the Cherokee Nation who voted to exclude the freedmen shows an amazing lack of understanding of one of the great contributions the Cherokee have made to world culture. In the words of Cherokee David Cornsilk, who supports the freedmen, “We as a people must look back to where we have been to know where we are today.”