I grew up in northeast Oklahoma: Cherokee country. Many of my African-American friends growing up were also members of the Cherokee tribe. The “Five Civilized Tribes,” which include the Cherokees, assimilated quite a bit into the white man’s ways–which is why the white men called them “civilized”–and that included, since they mostly lived down south, owning slaves. On the Trail of Tears, they took their slaves with them to Oklahoma. After the Civil War, in which conflict most of the Cherokees sided with their fellow slave holders in the Confederacy, the slaves, of course, were freed. In 1866, the tribe signed a treaty that included the provision that all of the Freedmen, the ex-slaves and their descendants, would be granted full membership in the Cherokee tribe. I always thought that was a noble gesture, accepting the former slaves as equals. And the Cherokees in the past have not been particularly insistent on “Indian blood,” since tribal rules also allows for white Cherokees, who are as little as 1/16 Native American.
But now the Cherokees have voted to kick the Freedmen out of the tribe. That was a few years ago, but now the tribal court has ruled on the matter, saying the black Cherokees can be kicked off the tribal rolls, which also means that they will be cut out of the health care and other benefits the federal government gives to Native Americans. A federal court, though, has stepped in, forbidding the racial discrimination and insisting that the 1866 treaty is still valid. So now the tribe is up in arms (not literally, not like the old days), insisting that a nation has the right to determine who its citizens can be. (I suspect that another dynamic here is a bitter election for tribal chief. A recent vote was nearly a tie, and it was contested to the point that a new election is in the works. I suspect that disenfranchising a block of voters might be to one of the candidates’ advantage, though I don’t know who. And there may well be other issues. I’m pretty much out of touch these days. I’d be glad to hear from any Cherokees of any color who might be reading this. Feel free to correct me.)