Cherokee Nation To Vote on Expelling Slaves' Descendants
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 3, 2007; Page A01
VINITA, Okla. --
J.D. Baldridge, 73, has 'official'
government documents showing him to be
'a descendant' of a Full-Blood Cherokee.
He has memories of a youth spent
among Cherokee neighbors and kin,
at tribal stomp dances and hog fries.
He holds on to a fair amount
of Cherokee vocabulary.
"Salali," Baldridge says, his face
creasing into a smile at the word.
"Squirrel stew. Oh, that was good."
What Baldridge, a retired Oklahoma
county sheriff, also has is at
least one Black ancestor, a former
slave of a Cherokee family.
That could get Baldridge cast out of the
tribe, along with thousands of others.
J.D. Baldridge, whose ancestors
include Cherokees and their former
slaves, may lose tribal membership.
(By Ellen Knickmeyer -- The Washington Post)
The 250,000-member Cherokee Nation
will vote in a 'special election' today
whether to override a 141-year-old treaty
and change the tribal constitution to
bar "Freedmen," 'the descendants of
former tribal slaves', from being
members of the sovereign nation.
"It's a basic, inherent right
to determine our own citizenry.
We paid very dearly for those rights,"
Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith said
in an interview last month in Oklahoma City.
But the Cherokee freedmen see the vote as
less about self-determination than about
discrimination and historical blinders.
They see in the referendum hints of
racism and a desire by some Cherokees
to deny the tribe's slave-owning past.
"They know these people exist.
And they're trying to push them aside,
as though they were never with them,"
said Andra Shelton, one of
Baldridge's family members.
Shelton, 59, can recall her mother
gossiping in fluent Cherokee when
Cherokee friends and relatives visited.
People on both sides of the issue say
the fight is also about tribal politics
-- the Freedmen at times have been at odds
with the tribal leadership -- and about money.
Advocates of expelling the Freedmen call it
a matter of safeguarding tribal resources,
which include a $350 million annual budget
from federal and tribal revenue, and Cherokees'
share of a gambling industry that, for U.S.
tribes overall, takes in $22 billion a year.
The grass-roots campaign for expulsion
has given heavy play to warnings that
keeping Freedmen in the Cherokee Nation
could encourage thousands more to
sign up for a slice of the tribal pie.
"Don't get taken advantage
of by 'these people'.
They will suck you dry,"
Darren Buzzard, an advocate of expelling
the Freedmen, wrote last summer in a widely
circulated e-mail denounced by Freedmen.
"Don't let "black" Freedmen
back you into a corner.
PROTECT CHEROKEE CULTURE FOR OUR
CHILDREN. FOR OUR DAUGHTER[S] . . .
FIGHT AGAINST 'THE INFILTRATION'."
The issue is a remnant of the
"peculiar institution" of
Southern slavery and a discordant
note set against the ringing
statements of racial-solidarity
often voiced by people-of-color.
"It's oppressed people that's
oppressing people," said Verdie
Triplett, 53, an outspoken
Freedman of the Choctaw tribe,
which, like the Cherokee,
once owned Black slaves.
Cherokees, along with Choctaws, Chickasaws,
Creeks and Seminoles, were long known as
the "Five Civilized Tribes" because
they adopted many of the ways of
their White neighbors in the South,
including the holding of Black slaves.
Many of the Cherokees' slaves accompanied
the tribe when it was expelled from its
traditional lands in North Carolina
and Georgia and forced to migrate
in 1838 and 1839 to Indian
Territory, in what is now Oklahoma.
Thousands of Cherokees died during the trip,
which became known as the "Trail of Tears."
It is not known how many of
their slaves also perished.
The tribe fought for the Confederacy.
In defeat, it signed a federal treaty
in 1866 committing that its slaves,
who had been freed by tribal decree
during the war, would be absorbed
as citizens of the Cherokee Nation.
By the late 1880s, Washington started
opening up tribal lands in Oklahoma
to White settlers, breaking
previous pledges to the tribes.
As a step toward ending tribal ownership
of Indian Territory, Congress initiated
a new census of the "Five Civilized Tribes"
-- a census known as the Dawes Commission.
It is that head count that
the Cherokee Nation would use to
determine the eligibility of Freedmen.
Past censuses of the tribes had noted
both the Indian and the African ancestry
of Freedmen, counting those of
Mixed-heritage as Native Americans.
The Dawes Commission took a different approach.
Setting up tents in fields and at crossroads,
the census takers eyeballed and interviewed
those who came before them, separating
them into different categories.
If someone seemed to be Indian or White
with Indian blood, the commission listed that
person as Whole or Part-Indian, historians say.
People who the officials thought looked "black"
were listed as Freedmen, and 'no Indian lineage
was noted', according to Freedmen and Historians.
"In cases of Mixed-Freedmen and Indian parents,"
Kent Carter wrote in his book "The Dawes Commission,"
applicants were "not given credit
for having any Indian blood."
Baldridge's ancestors are recorded
as Freedmen in the Dawes rolls.
Roy Baldridge, J.D.'s son, said
that for the Dawes Commission,
"if you had 'a drop of 'Black'
blood', you were "black"."
"That's false," said Smith, the Cherokee chief.
"I think there was not a fixed policy that if you
were dark, you were put on the Freedmen roll."
Still, whether people were listed as Indians
or Freedmen, they were, under the 1866 treaty,
considered citizens of the Cherokee Nation.
Today's vote could revoke
that designation for freedmen.
The census recorded about 20,000 Freedmen for
the five tribes, said Angela Y. Walton-Raji,
a genealogist whose research has been
seminal for freedmen tracing their roots.
[The] 'descendants of those freed tribal
slaves' would number in the hundreds
of thousands today, Walton-Raji said.
But Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement
Separated [the Full-] Native members of
the tribes from [Mixed-Race] Freedmen.
Today, no more than a few thousand
'descendants of the slaves' are
"officially" members of the five
tribes, leaving their prospects of
defeating the Cherokee referendum slim.
By late last month, about 2,800
had re-registered in time to vote.
"A lot of Cherokees don't know who
the Freedmen are," Smith said.
Did he, growing up? "No."
The Cherokee Nation expelled many
'descendants of slaves' in 1983
by "requiring them to show a degree of
Indian blood -- through the Dawes rolls".
A tribal court reinstated them in March 2006.
That spurred today's special election,
which received a go-ahead Feb. 21
when a federal judge in Washington
denied the Freedmen's request for
an injunction to halt the balloting.
Seated around a kitchen table recently
at a family home in Vinita, one of
Oklahoma's first settlements founded in
part by Cherokee Freedmen, the Baldridges
spoke with bitterness about the dispute.
"It should have been a nonissue,"
Roy Baldridge, 51, said
of 'the controversy' in
the Cherokee Nation.
Stacks of photocopied U.S. government
tribal censuses, genealogies and family
photos lay spread out on the table.
A portrait of Martin Luther
King Jr. hung in the next room.
"It makes me sad that a few have brought this
out and we're in this situation," he said.
And the fight over 'heritage' is
moving beyond the Cherokee Nation.
The other tribes that owned slaves,
and "black" 'descendants' in those
tribes, are watching the vote.
In 2000, the Seminole Nation expelled Freedmen
but was compelled by the Bureau of Indian
Affairs and Federal courts to take them back.
The Creek Nation has battled its Freedmen in court.
Over the winter, Choctaw and Chickasaw
Freedmen formed their own association.
At his home in Fort Coffee, a hamlet founded by
Choctaw freedmen, Triplett said he is not trying
to immerse himself in his Indian heritage.
"Oh, no!" he said. "I'm "black"!"
But a few days later he stood at Fort Coffee's
Choctaw cemetery, where because of renovation
a chain-link fence separates the [full-] Indian
and [Mixed-Race] Freedman sides of the graveyard.
Triplett pointed out ancestors.
Leaving, he shouted a warning to the Choctaw side:
"Guess who's coming to dinner!"