For those who lament that the US Constitution is too difficult to amend, they should take a look at what happens when a constitution is easy to change. Last week, the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation upheld a 2007 referendum that stripped tribal membership of around 2,800 descendents of Cherokee-owned black slaves known as the Freedmen.
The Cherokee Nation (or Western Band) with land in Oklahoma (not to be confused with the Eastern Band of Cherokee in Western North Carolina) is the largest of three Federally recognized Cherokee groups and has nearly 300,000 members. In 2006, the Cherokee Supreme court ruled that additional Freedmen as well as intermarried whites, could become tribal members. This did not sit well with Chief Chad Smith and others in the Nation’s political hierarchy. Maintaining the integrity of the tribe may have been their public face, but with hundreds of millions of dollars of gaming revenue in play, as well as the prospect of diluted political power, one has to wonder about their noble motives.
A petition drive garnered a paltry 2,217 signatures, but that was enough to place a referendum for a constitutional amendment on the ballot. Smith, glowing with pride over this demonstration of democracy, would go on to say, “The people have spoken clearly, demanding the right to decide this Constitutional issue for themselves.” I’m not quite sure how less than one percent of a population makes for a “clear voice.”
Proponents of the referendum managed to encourage about 8,000 Cherokee to vote. That number represents about four percent of adult membership of the Cherokee Nation. A low turnout plus the fact that those who were the target of de-Cherokee-fication were not allowed to participate in the election delivered a desired result of 77% voting in favor of expelling the Freedmen. To be clear, the constitutional amendment did not effect the approximately 1,500 Freedmen who could trace ancestry back to the Dawes Roll that the US Government drew up for Indian identification of the “Five Civilized Tribes” back in 1907.
Later in 2007 a Cherokee Nation district court ruled that the referendum was void since it violated a 1866 treaty between the Cherokee and the US Government. Among other things, the treaty stipulated that Freedmen were to be considered part of the tribe. If any group should be sensitive to breaking treaty agreements, it should be Native Americans. Nevertheless, last week’s Cherokee Supreme Court decision stated that membership was not a treaty issue but a constitutional one and there was a “sovereign right to change the definition of Cherokee Nation citizenship.”
There’s another side to sentiments like “sovereign right” as expressed by Cherokee Nation Attorney General Diane Hammons who said, “This affects all of us native Cherokees. At any time, the tribe could decide to institute a blood quantum, which would automatically disenroll many of us.” I bet there are people who would like to make US citizenship contingent on tracing ancestry back to the Mayflower passenger list.
The Cherokee slaves traversed the deadly “Trail of Tears.” They lived in the Cherokee culture and most of their descendents have Indian blood. However, the options for repatriation are limited. There is always the legal route, but litigation tends to favor those with the greater financial resources. One novel possibility is for the Eastern Band of Cherokee to adopt their Freedmen brothers and sisters. Yes, the same “sharing the wealth” issue would be present but there are ways to make greed work for a good cause. Harrahs, that operates a casino and hotel in Cherokee, NC could increase the percentage of gaming revenue allotted to tribal members to compensate for the Freedmen who wished to join with a little added percentage to sweeten the deal. Both the Eastern Band of Cherokee and Harrahs would gain favorable national attention and foster a great deal of goodwill.
Plan B involves the U.S. government recognizing the Freedmen as an official Indian tribe. Instead of building a casino on tribal land, a tax exempt manufacturing plant for example, could serve as a revenue generator. Then, with the Freedmen’s new found prosperity, those who voted to exclude them could scurry to find African lineage or flip their constitution once again.
George Hasara is a regular contributing columnist for the Macon County News, as well as the owner and proprietor of the Rathskeller Coffee Haus & Pub, located at 58 Stewart Street in downtown Franklin.