Haunting picture from the Cherokee side of my family

I was sent this picture tonight via email. It means a great deal to me, as it gives some degree of tangible proof regarding the oral history in my family of our Cherokee roots. (my ancestors, like many, did not sign the Dawes rolls) 

 Ella England


(you can click on the thumbnail above to see a full-size picture) The girl on the right-hand side is Ella, my great-great-grandmother. Her grandmother is in the center. 

Message to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma — Having the right to do something, doesn’t make it right

Cherokee.org: Freedmen Descendants’ Lawsuit Against Cherokee Nation Dismissed, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rules that Cherokee Nation has sovereign immunity, Rejects Freedmen descendants’ theory, Opinion says tribal sovereign immunity existed since founding of U.S. and continues today

The CNO (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) is putting a definite spin on this case. The Court of Appeals ruled that the tribe has sovereign immunity, but NOT the tribal officials, meaning that the Freedmen’s case will still proceed against Chief Chad Smith and other officials. And, the decision opens the door for the Freedmen to take the case to the US Supreme Court.

But this is only one side of this case. The tribe might have the right to break its treaty obligations to the Freedmen (and in the end the individual officials might share those rights), but it doesn’t make it right to do so.

In the past, I’ve focused on punitive ways to force the CNO to change it’s current policies (and I’ll restate for new readers who haven’t followed past posts on this controversy, that while I’m not a CNO citizen but I do have Cherokee ancestry and care a lot about the outcome of this decision), but I think now that it is better to focus on ideas for a positive outcome to this dispute that doesn’t involve coercion.

Here are my suggestions:

1. The CNO leadership could put the issue of the Freedmen up for another vote. Voter turnout was horribly bad before, and I think many Cherokees didn’t understand the critical significance of this vote and would turn out to vote to reinstate the Freedmen if given the chance again. This vote would be of historic proportions and would be significant not only in Cherokee history but in US history too.

2. If such a vote is not possible, then I would suggest that the US Federal government sit down with the CNO to engage in state-to-state level treaty negotiations. If the CNO continues to exclude the Freedmen, this is a breach of the Federal government’s (and also the Freedmen’s) treaty rights*, and it would seem reasonable that the matter be resolved on the diplomatic level. I’m not sure what this settlement might look like (i.e. a financial settlement, or possibly a separate co-existent sovereign status for the Freedmen, in exchange for increased financial or other assistance for the tribe from the Federal government), but I think it could be workable.

I know this would be a major change in US Indian policy (the Federal government quit signing treaties with the tribes around the turn of the century), but it would be far better than the alternatives, either ignoring the treaty violation or Congress using its plenary powers under the US constitution to mandate a solution.

3. However, whatever option is used (# 1 or 2 above), I think the other alternatives are horribly negative and harmful to all parties involved. A SCOTUS ruling on appeal of the current decision or action by the US Congress would result in a horrible, horrible precedent against future tribal rights (and would result in years and years of animosity between CNO citizens, both Freedmen and non-freedmen). This is why I no longer support punitive measures to force the CNO to do the right thing.

In conclusion, I think that the CNO has a tremendous opportunity here. It can once and for all stand up for the rights of all Cherokee people (including the Freedmen) and make right the wrongs of past generations who enslaved the Freedmen. And I think in doing this, it would gain significant political and moral power that could be used in the continued struggle justice for all Native peoples.

 * I know that some readers may find it ironic that I’m complaining about an Indian tribe violating its treaty obligations with the US federal government, when the US government has broken countless treaties with the tribes.

I would argue however, that two wrongs don’t make a right, and more pertinently that the Freedmen were an indirect party to the treaty. In other words, the US government was serving as a protector and trustee of the rights of the Freedmen in this treaty, and as such while the US government sign the treaty, the real folks who were once protected by the treaty, and who are now hurt when it is broken, are the Freedmen.

I’ve changed my mind on the Cherokee defunding issue

This is an update to an earlier post that was cross-posted at Dailykos diary and at OpEdNews.com

After talking to many people both on website comments and on email, I’ve changed my mind on the issue of defunding the Chereokee Nation of Oklahoma.

I still strongly believe that CNO did wrong by voting to exclude the Freedmen, but I also can understand that at least some of the voters didn’t do so because of racism but because they feel strongly about the need for blood ties in the nation. I myself don’t agree with this perspective as I think culture is more important than blood — as a brother of 3 adopted siblings and 2 natural-born siblings, I think my adopted siblings are just as much kin as the natural-born ones are. To me the Freedmen are adopted Cherokee and should be treated as such.

That said, the issue of threatening to defund the CNO will be seen as a threat to the survival and continued existence of the nation by many, and will I think force folks into a corner in trying to defend a bad policy. I also think it isn’t fair, as other tribes have also excluded their Freedmen so to single out only the CNO isn’t right.

It seems like a better approach is to take the defunding issue off the table and to return to the negotiating table. There are lots of possible solutions if folks are creative enough. And I think in the long run the CNO (and other tribes) will have a richer and fuller culture if they accept the Freedmen as their adopted kin. But I think this has to be a matter of persuasion not coercion.

Cherokee Nation sells out

Cherokee.org: The Freedmen Issue

I have spoken on this blog in the past about the Cherokee Freedman controversy (click here to read past posts), but tonight after reading some crap on the Cherokee Nation’s website feel like I need to say more about the matter.

As I understand it, the basic facts of the situation are this…

The Cherokee (along with many other Indian tribes) owned slaves prior to their removal in the Trail of Tears. In the removal, the Cherokee brought their slaves with them to their lands in what would someday become Oklahoma.

During the Civil war, the Oklahoma tribes were split as to who they would support North or South, but a sizable number allied themselves with the South. After the war, the North used the fact that some tribal members fought with the South to justify harsh reconstruction treaties in which the tribes lost about half of their lands.
However, a good result from reconstruction was the abolition of slavery among the Indian tribes. The Union insisted that the tribes either adopt their former slaves (the new “freedmen”) as tribal members, or they would be required to give the freedmen substantial financial settlements and full emancipation. Most of the tribes (including the Cherokee) went with the first option.

In later years, the Cherokee have tried to renege on their treaty obligations (ironic, since it is normally the white man that breaks Indian treaties) by kicking the freedmen out of the tribe. This to me is wrong. The Cherokee were wrong (as were non-Indians of the South) when they owned slaves. But they did commit this great wrong. The Freedmen have now been part of Cherokee society for over 100 years as free Cherokee people. To kick them out now, is no different and no less wrong that what the Southern states did when they enacted Jim Crow laws to put their former slaves into virtual slavery and subjugation. And it is

Being an Indian is certainly about blood ties, but it is more than that. It is culture, it is tradition, it is language. To me the Freedmen suffered alongside the Cherokees and even under the Cherokees. To kick them out now is the ultimate insult.

I’m not surprised to see the current tribal administration defend their actions on their website, but I do find it particularly ironic to see them do so while displaying this little graphic on their website…

Common Values, Common ground - graphic taken from freedmen.cherokee.org
Here are these beautiful Cherokee children with their hands over their hearts (presumably reciting the pledge of allegiance) while one child is holding an American flag.Pardon me while I barf.

The Cherokee were sent on a genocidal death march by the US Army. That flag was carried by the troops who took the Cherokee to Oklahoma, and that flag flew over the White House where racist President Andrew Jackson defied the Supreme Court and ordered the Indian removals to continue.

But now, the great Cherokee Nation is willing to sell itself out and have their children be used as a propaganda tool in favor of disenfranchising the Freedmen, by playing to the presumed “common values, common ground” between racist pro-exclusion Cherokees and the dominant white culture.

I am proud to be Cherokee (I’m not a citizen though because my Cherokee ancestor wasn’t allowed to sign it by her white husband, but that doesn’t change my heritage), but I’m not proud of what the Cherokee nation is doing.

I stand with the Freedmen and will continue to stand with them. There is a move by members of the Congressional Black caucus to take away federal funding for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. (Here is the Cherokee Nation’s response to this (PDF download). I hope it doesn’t come to this, but if the Cherokee nation will not back down then I think the funding should be yanked. I don’t think it is right for the Federal government to aid and abet racism, and if the Cherokee nation will not live up to its treaty obligations to the Freedmen then I don’t see what the alternative is.

Let me say it one more way. The Cherokees action to take away tribal citizenship and to take away the Freedmen’s right to vote, is no different than the US deciding to repeal 14th and 15th Amendments.

The Freedmen soon to get their day in court

OKGazette: Cherokee Freedmen file for injunction – by Ben Fenwick

The freedmen were removed from the Cherokee tribe in March by a vote in which only 3 percent of the tribe voted. Velie told OklahomaGazette that Principal Chief Chad Smith removed the freedmen because he believed they would vote against him in elections.

(emphasis added is my own)

Also this story makes some very interesting connections between disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramhoff and Smith.

Cherokee News

Muskogee Phoenix: Keeping Cherokee a living language — Tribal educators immerse children in their native tongue — This is such a good thing to see. While I think it is great for older folks to try to learn the language (I’ve been struggling with it off and on for years), I think the best hope for the language’s survival is for there to be more immersion programs for youth)

Muskogee Phoenix: The people speak — Nation shames itself with freedmen vote (a LTE written by myself) (see also this recent JMBzine post on the subject of the Cherokee’s mistreatment of the Freedmen

Cherokee to vote on kicking out Freedmen

Cherokee.org: Information about the upcoming election to deny Freedmen Cherokee citizenship

Cherokee.org: Information about Cherokee voter registration and absentee ballot voting

This is a sad, sad situation. Seeing one group of oppressed people attack another group of oppressed people is a horrible thing. The Cherokees unfortunately and tragically participated in the enslavement of African-Americans (as did many other Indian tribes). They brought these slaves with them on the Trail of Tears, but also in somes intermarried with free slaves who also came to Oklahoma. Later during Reconstruction the tribe was forced to adopt the former slaves as citizens through the treaties signed with the US government. However since then the tribe has repeatedly (and shamefully) acted to keep the Freedmen from taking an active role in Cherokee life.

I can’t vote in this election (my full-blood Cherokee ancestor’s white husband refused to allow his wife and children to be listed on the roll, which is why I don’t have citizenship despite my Cherokee ancestry), but for those Cherokee folks who can vote, please vote against this measure. Our ancestors committed a wrong by enslaving folks. The wrong can’t be undone, but at least we don’t have to continue to oppression.

Here’s some more information on the story of the Black Cherokee Freedmen and what is happening to them today…

Wikipedia.org: Cherokee Freedmen membership controversies

Indianz.com: Judge rules Freedmen can sue Cherokee Nation

Cherokeebyblood.com: Black Indians

African-NativeAmerican.com: Celebrating the Estelusti ~ The Freedmen, Oklahoma’s Black Indians

Freedmen5Tribes.com: News about the Cherokee Special Election