Let Cherokees decide who’s Cherokee

HEATHER WILLIAMS is a Cherokee citizen and an Indian freedmen descendant.

I’M PROUD TO BE a Cherokee citizen who is also descended from black slaves, and the Cherokee Nation I know is one of the most diverse, welcoming societies on Earth. Yet today, my tribe stands accused of racism and is the target of legislation introduced by Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) aimed at cutting off our federal funding because we amended our tribal constitution to affirm that, in order to be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, you must prove by-blood descent from Cherokee Indians.

Can a tribe be both inclusive and have a by-blood requirement? My experience proves that it can, and I believe that Indians deserve the right to preserve our heritage through a direct connection to our ancestors.

The constitutional amendment is a recent chapter of a long history. In 1906, a census called the Dawes Roll was created, listing by-blood Indians along with non-Indian residents of Cherokee Territory. Some of those residents were former Cherokee slaves or their descendants, known as freedmen, and an 1866 treaty with the U.S. government called for them to have “rights of native Cherokees.” Watson refers to that treaty as the basis for her contention that all freedmen should be tribal members.

But of course that treaty was controversial. It came after the infamous Trail of Tears and at the end of the Civil War, which ushered in half a century of fierce U.S. government efforts to destroy Cherokee (and other tribes’) sovereignty and land claims. Ultimately, the only “rights of native Cherokees” left to speak of were the right of individuals to a private land allotment and a cash payment from the U.S. government — which non-Indian freedmen and Cherokees alike received when the U.S. dissolved our territory and made Oklahoma a state.

Then, for a long time, there was no functioning Cherokee government. It wasn’t until 1975 that Cherokees were able to revitalize their nation and lay claim to self-governance. The Cherokee constitution was written then, and its intent was that Cherokee citizens should be Indians who could trace their lineage to at least one by-blood Indian listed on the Dawes Roll.

However, a group of freedmen who aren’t Indian descendants sued for citizenship in our tribal court. In 2006, the tribal supreme court ruled that the Cherokee constitution was not clear enough about their status — a ruling that effectively granted citizenship to about 2,800 non-Indians by court order. (Before this court order, non-Indian descendants of Cherokee freedmen had sued twice in federal court and lost, and they also lost a suit in tribal courts as recently as 2001.)

Once our court overturned its earlier decision in 2006, the Cherokee Nation then went back to its citizens, including the non-Indian freedmen descendants, to clarify the constitution. By a vote of 77%, we disagreed with the court and amended the constitution to reflect our passionate belief: We should be an Indian tribe made up of Indians.

The non-Indians have a right to appeal, and they are pursuing it. Until those appeals are exhausted, the freedmen descendants remain full citizens of the Cherokee Nation with the right to vote and use tribal services, such as our healthcare system.

Watson and others have tried to paint the Cherokee Nation’s repeated attempts to make Indian descent a citizenship requirement as discrimination against blacks. As a freedmen descendant who looks black, and who is also a by-blood citizen, I’m offended by that. There was no racial issue when the Cherokee Nation welcomed me 14 years ago. In 1993, I received my citizenship card, which affirmed my connection to the tribe by blood through my great-great-great grandfather, Daniel Tucker — just as I am connected to my freedmen lineage through his wife.

For me, the crucial question is who decides who is an Indian? Does the United States government decide? Does misinformed public opinion decide? Or do Indians decide? And the issue is not one of discrimination but of how best to preserve Indian identity.

Through my own experience, I’ve come to believe that Indian ancestry is crucial to the preservation of our identity. It is simply what makes the Cherokees an Indian nation. As a group whose nation was almost erased, we know that defining that identity is crucial to maintaining it now. Establishing who is and who isn’t a tribal citizen is the rightful function of a self-governing sovereign nation and a key to maintaining sovereignty. For virtually every tribe in the country, that means having a by-blood requirement for citizenship.

I treasure my African American roots, and I also feel fully a part of the Cherokee community. Some of my fondest memories are of participating in wonderful Cherokee traditions, and the Cherokee tribe accepts me regardless of my racial appearance. When I look at our schools, religious organizations and communities, I can see that this is the rule, not the exception. Multiracial and freedmen-descendant Cherokees like me are living proof that the nation welcomes all Cherokees equally.

But what unites us is our shared Indian ancestry. We should not be subject to false charges of racism and attack legislation when we seek to preserve and build on that shared history, enabling our children and grandchildren to keep their precious heritage alive.