March 8, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 30
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A nation divided

Kenneth J. Cooper

In 30 years as a journalist, I have written about many elections, always with the detachment expected of a professional. But the outcome of this one I take personally.

The Cherokee Indians have voted overwhelmingly to exclude descendants of the tribe’s slaves — no matter how much Cherokee blood they may have. The referendum approved last week by nearly 77 percent of Cherokee voters amends their constitution to overturn two court rulings, which last year opened membership to people whose forbears were listed as “Freedmen” in early census records.

Ancestors on my mother’s side were slaves to a Cherokee family in Oklahoma. Other maternal ancestors, though identified in tribal records as “colored,” were part Cherokee. Family oral history says so, and a census taker’s interview with my great-grandmother suggests it was so.

This may seem a small matter of tribal politics. It’s bigger than that. Just like the dispute over admitting the black descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s family into the association of his white descendants, the Cherokee referendum reflects a national failure to resolve the central trauma in American history: slavery, which in the 21st century still orders relations, inflames emotions and colors attitudes.

Cherokees are once again mimicking bad American practice, against their own tradition, just as they did by owning slaves. Cherokees believe any degree of Cherokee blood is enough to make you one, that is, unless you were thought to be black. White society’s old “one-drop” rule apparently rules in that case.

Traditionally, slavery was not part of Cherokee culture. The tribe imitated whites and adopted the practice in the early 1800s after members took up farming, which was supposed to show they were “civilized.” In 1838, some slaves made the grueling trek with the tribe from southeastern states to Oklahoma on the “Trail of Tears.”

Starting about that time, my slave ancestors were present in what was then called Indian Territory. Census records indicate a great-great-grandmother was born in Oklahoma around 1840. Her son Jacob Vann fathered my grandmother. She described him as a buff dark-skinned man who worked six days a week lifting and toting at a dry goods store, and who drank hard and rumbled on Saturday nights to relieve stress.

It is unclear whether Jake Vann had any Cherokee blood. Curiously, though, Jake’s “colored” father was named Crow, and the census lists no former owner for him.

Jake’s wife is another matter. As a child, I knew my great-grandmother, who had raised my own mother and, memorably, smoked a pipe. My mother says the woman born as Florence Ragsdale was racially mixed, with maternal ancestors who were Cherokee.

Census records say my great-grandmother was colored or black. She herself did not seem so sure.

The referendum means a tribal census completed a century ago determines who can be Cherokee. Anyone with an ancestor listed as born into the tribe can become a member. People whose ancestors were Freedmen adopted into the tribe can’t.

The census interview with my great-grandmother begins with the question whether she is applying for membership by birth or adoption. By birth, she responded. The census-taker then describes a private aside between the young woman and an older man accompanying her. Afterwards, she changed her answer.

Who knows who the man was, or what the private conversation was? It is hard to believe, though, that she didn’t know her ancestry.

More likely, she changed her answer to follow the census rule that Freedmen descendants maintain applied: People who were black and Cherokee were listed as black, but those who were white and Cherokee as Cherokee.

Freedmen leaders plan to challenge the referendum in court. An 1866 treaty abolished slavery in the tribe and declared that the tribe’s freed slaves, free blacks “and their descendants shall have all the rights of native Cherokees.” The federal agency with jurisdiction, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, appears content to let the Cherokees set their membership rules, however racist they are.

The referendum’s supporters fear an influx of new enrollees seeking federally funded scholarships, health services and other benefits. Members seem to think Freedmen don’t have anything to contribute to the tribe, even though many pushing for membership are educated professionals. The top leader, for instance, is a petroleum engineer.

Personally, all I want is for a part of my heritage to be recognized.

A minority of Cherokees held slaves, but here’s one way of looking at the referendum, since most tribal members today are more European than Native American: The descendants of slaveholders are denying equality to the descendants of slaves.

After studying a batch of census records 20 years ago, I doubted the people who owned my ancestors were Cherokees, with a name like Smith. I changed my mind when I saw the name of the current principal chief. It’s Chad Smith.

Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a freelance journalist based in Boston.

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