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ISSUE 120 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/16/2007

Tribe members limited

By Tim Rehborg
Opinion Editor

Friday, March 16, 2007

Last week the Cherokee Nation voted to limit tribal membership to descendants of Amerindians by blood. 76.6 percent voted in favor of this limitation; however, a miniscule showing was present at the election. Less than four percent of the Nation’'s 280,000 members voted on the amendment.

The vote raises controversy because it excludes the Cherokee Nation's Freedmen, descendants of the slaves of Cherokees. After the Civil War these people, who endured the hardships of the Trail of Tears along with the Cherokee people, were granted membership in the Cherokee nation. Today, many of these Freedmen share, to some degree, Cherokee blood.

Historically, the Cherokee Nation has been an organization based on politics and not race. However, this move ejects the Nation’s black members: about 2,800 Freedmen affected by this amendment.

What is to be gained through belonging to the tribe? Members obtain government benefits and tribal services, including important access to housing and medical support. Equally important is the sense of identity and community within the Nation.

Freedmen have been part of the Cherokee nation since the Civil War. In the early 20th century, the Dawes Commission set up two lists, one for descendents of Cherokee Amerindians, and one for the Freedmen. The current amendment removes the membership of those on the Freedman roll.

Interestingly, according to the Cherokee Nation website, this election came into being through a petition of registered Cherokee voters. This is the first time that a stand-alone election has occurred regarding the Cherokee constitution.

Imagine: A group of individuals in the Cherokee Nation, petitioning against the membership of the Freedmen who have been part of the Nation since their status as “"free"” was announced. A miniscule proportion of the Cherokee Nation shows at the polls to vote on the issue of membership. How can this move be labeled anything but racist? This motion clearly targets the black members of the Nation.

Visit the website for the Cherokee Nation. Information on culture and heritage, genealogy lists, historical timelines and online language classes abound. The Nation, for practical purposes, is largely a cultural organization. Cherokee opponents of the amendment compare the status of Cherokees who “live "like the white man"” and African-Americans who are culturally involved with the Cherokee Nation, and have been since Emancipation. How is it fair to revoke medical and housing benefits from a people who identify culturally as Cherokee?

The hardships endured by these displaced people during the Trail of Tears has become a defining element of the Cherokee Nation; the Cherokee Freedmen clearly suffered along with their then-masters. Consider the situation of the descendents of other slaves in the United States: they are considered part of the society which once brutally enslaved them, granted full rights as citizens in their previous masters'’ society. This is a right deserved by the Cherokee Freedmen. They are part of Cherokee society, just as the descendents of enslaved Africans are members of the larger community of the United States. They deserve the dignity and community provided within the Cherokee Nation.

Staff Writer Tim Rehborg is a junior from Owatonna, Minn. He majors in English and in dance.

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