Critics Blast Cherokee Nation for Ousting Freedmen from Tribal Rolls: Congressional Black Caucus Asks U.S. Dept. of the Interior to Investigate "Validity."

Article excerpt

In a highly controversial move, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma recently voted to remove 2,700 Blacks known as Freedmen from their tribal rolls, sparking an immediate outcry and possibly setting the stage for a showdown with the federal government.

Last month, Cherokee members voted to invalidate the tribal membership of the Freedmen, descendants of African slaves who stayed with the tribe and adopted its language and culture. The Freedmen were granted tribal citizenship in an 1866 treaty between the federal government and the Cherokee Nation.

But a successful petition drive has amended the Cherokee constitution to require that citizenship be defined purely by blood. The decision has drawn concern and criticism, with many saying the amendment was not based on a thorough understanding of the tribe's political and legal history. Instead, they say it was motivated by racism and a perception that Freedmen simply want access to membership benefits such as health care.

"It's like the O.J. Simpson trial. Once the debate became about race nobody got a fair hearing," says Dr. Daniel F. Littlefield Jr., director of the Sequoyah Research Center at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. "This decision should have been based on the 1866 Treaty in which the Freedmen were granted citizenship, not race."

Littlefield, who has done extensive research on the history of the Freedmen, says the Cherokee are dismissing an important tribal value--inclusion. As one of the few tribes that have adopted other American Indians into their ranks, Cherokees have long been defined by both blood and culture, Littlefield says. …