Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cherokees vs. African Americans in the 21st Century

Recently I saw a fascinating story in the news: the Cherokee Nation had just voted to expel the descendants of freed slaves from their tribe.

Reading on, I discovered layers of suffering spread across multiple generations.  When the Cherokee were expelled from their homelands in the 19th century and forced to resettle in what would become Oklahoma, the richer members of the tribe brought their black slaves with them. This doesn’t quite fit the modern image of the Indian as a New Age guru spouting wisdom about buffalo and rivers, but then again, the myths constructed by guilty white folks to compensate for past sins always disintegrate upon contact with reality.

The story gets a lot more complex. In 1866- having fought on the side of the slave owning Confederacy in the Civil War- the surviving tribe members signed a treaty with the Federal Government, granting their freed slaves equal rights as members of the tribe, and soon after they were recognized in the Cherokee constitution as citizens. Thus there were around 2800 “Cherokee” of African descent in 2007, when they were suddenly expelled as a result of a referendum, a decision which was just upheld by the Cherokee Supreme Court. 
At once the black Cherokee lost their identity, access to benefits, and the right to vote in tribal elections. 

Meanwhile the Cherokee Nation is about to elect its principal chief- and one of the candidates has been campaigning to get the Freedmen kicked out for ten years. Easier to win now, that their votes have disappeared, perhaps…

My first response to this was: wow. In 21st century America, with a black president in the White House, it’s still totally legal to dispossess and humiliate black people. Crazy! What are the Feds going to do?

I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. The Bureau of Indian Affairs declared that it would not recognize the results of the Cherokee election if the Freedmen were not allowed to vote; meanwhile the US Housing and Urban Development department froze $33 million in funds allocated for the Cherokee. Outraged, the tribe’s acting chief, Joe Crittenden declared: "The Cherokee Nation will not be governed by the BIA, (the Bureau of Indian Affairs)" On TV I saw the matter cast as a question of self-determination- the Cherokee can decide for themselves who is Cherokee, and if they demand proof of Indian blood, that is their right.

The minority-on-minority aspect of this story is especially troubling for those who prefer it when the USA or Israel or maybe Russia is the baddie. For instance, The Guardian- which bills itself as “the world’s leading liberal voice” ran a piece on the story with a headline so psychedelic as to be inconceivable; until it was actually conceived:

Apparently, because the Federal Government has done bad things to Indians in the past, they should now do nothing, because if they do something, it will only make things worse… or something. Cherokee sovereignty trumps all other considerations. Thus the bizarre moral calculus of “liberal” guilt. So does that mean the Feds should cut off all funding to the tribe, since surely that also interferes with their ‘sovereignty’; or do you keep handing out the free stuff, even as the recipients do things you abhor?

Furthermore, reneging on treaties is a two way street. If the Cherokee want to toss out terms agreed to in 1866, then the Feds can do likewise … and you really don’t really want to encourage Uncle Sam to go back on his agreements. The Cherokee should know that better than anyone.
Well, the threats issued from on high appear to have worked- for now. On Tuesday it was announced that the Freedmen would be permitted to vote in upcoming tribal elections.

What to make of this sad story? On the one hand I can understand Cherokee concern over the definition of a tribe member. I get annoyed when I meet exceedingly European looking people claiming to be part Indian, and I’m not Indian. These individuals appropriate an identity and a tragic history merely to add bogus exoticism to their mundane life stories. On the other hand, when the tribe accepts as members people who are a mere 1/2048 Cherokee- which they do- then the definition has already been rendered pretty meaningless.  Go back long enough and we are all African, Arab, Jew, whatever. Meanwhile those freed slaves who were granted citizenship in 1866 received it from Cherokee who were most likely 100% Cherokee, by blood, culture and language. I assume they knew what they were doing.

Oppression is not the privilege of the powerful alone; the weak can lash out and hurt those even weaker than themselves. But just because your great-great grandfather suffered abuse at the hands of the Federal Government, I don’t see how that justifies inflicting fresh abuse upon the descendants of the people he enslaved.