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Freedmen Question Divides Cherokees


A week ago the Cherokee Nation held a special election on the tribe's citizenship requirements. More than three-quarters of voters chose to amend the tribal constitution and revoke the citizenship of roughly 2,800 black members of the Cherokee tribe. The Cherokee Freedmen, as they're called, were slaves of Cherokees when they were forced to walk from their home in the Smokey Mountains to what's now Oklahoma. These slaves of course were freed at the end of the Civil War and were given Cherokee citizenship rights in an 1866 treaty. The Freedmen intend to challenge the election results and even asked the U.S. government to cut federal ties to the Cherokee Nation. One person who's been following this legal battle is Jenny Monet, a filmmaker of Laguna and Zuni Pueblo descent. She's working on a documentary about the history of the Cherokee Freedman called "Cherokee by Blood." She joins us from member station KWGS in Tulsa. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. JENNY MONET (Filmmaker): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Is there any reason other than simple racism that would lead so many Cherokee to vote against the membership of people who've been a member of their tribe for so many years?

Ms. MONET: Let's talk about discrimination. You take a look at the long history of Oklahoma, and ironically, you know, 100 years ago it was the statehood of Oklahoma in which the first law that was passed was the Railcar Act, which put African-Americans in the trains and separate cars...

SIMON: Yeah. But let me point out, that's not the law in Oklahoma now and hasn't been for over some time, and you're not putting the citizenship rights of anybody up for the vote in the state of Oklahoma and inviting people not to be citizens.

Ms. MONET: I guess what I was saying and what I was getting at is that the mentality of the Cherokee Indian tribe at that time was do we cross the line with our black brothers and sisters or do we support Oklahoma statehood and follow in that regard?

And if you look at the Cherokee Nation, they are considered one of the more assimilated tribal governments of all the 563 federally recognized tribes today. They are also considered one of the powerful and prosperous. They have a wonderful model of checks and balance systems with their tribal Supreme Court.

But in terms of really getting down to the race issue, yes, you'll have critics here who will downright say it's bigotry, because what's unlike other cases where identity wars are dividing tribes today, the defining factor here isn't money. There has been criticism that they're only signing up to get health care benefits or they sign up and then enroll in this housing programs.

So is it voting power? You'll hear a lot of proponents of the Freedman say the current administration in the tribe is concerned that the Freedman have a large voting power, but I think that after this vote you're hearing more sentiment about bigotry.

SIMON: What could happen legally at this point if the Freedman get their case heard before a U.S. district court, and could there be repercussions for other tribes?

Ms. MONET: Well, certainly the profound parallel in all of this is the situation of the Seminole Freedman case that really settled itself in 2000. The Seminole quietly removed to - removed its Seminole Freedman citizens from the rolls. Benefits were cut, such as education funding for children, voting rights.

The Treaty of 1886 for the Seminole Nation between the Seminole Nation and the United States government secured the rights of the Seminole Freedman. And if you're not recognizing this right in your own treaty, then you've abrogated it between the United States and our government-to-government ward-guardian relationship no longer stands.

So that's very prominent to consider in the Cherokee Nation case right now. I don't think that anyone wants to see this pushed into the federal arena for very many reasons. Once you start taking internal tribal matters that have all avenues to be handled within the tribe, the minute it starts to enter the federal arena is where the real threat begins, because it becomes an imposition on a tribe's right to self-govern themselves, to self-determination, and that very sovereign strength that they've built up over the last 30 years.

Imagine if Congress steps in and starts mandating blood requirements and restrictions on all tribes, locking them into an agreement that they didn't want themselves. It takes tribes backwards, not forwards, in their efforts that they've worked so hard to regenerate and rebound from in their sovereign motivation.

SIMON: Jenny Monet, Native American filmmaker in Oklahoma making a documentary about the Cherokee legal battle called "Cherokee by Blood." Thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. MONET: Thank you very much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.