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Cherokee Nation To Vote on Expelling Slaves' Descendants

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  • Daivd
    Cherokee Nation To Vote on Expelling Slaves Descendants http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/02/AR2007030201647.html By Ellen
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 4, 2007
      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.

      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!"
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