OKLAHOMA CITY – Descendants of former black slaves once owned by members of the Cherokee Nation are asking a federal judge to block a tribal election for principal chief until the tribe restores their full citizenship rights, including the right to vote.
In legal papers filed Friday in Washington, D.C., descendants of Cherokee freedmen, as they are known, asked a federal judge to halt a Sept. 24 election for principal chief of the Oklahoma-based tribe. A hearing on the request is set for Sept. 20 before U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr.
Documents filed by attorneys for the freedmen accuse the tribe of violating a 145-year-old treaty when the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court last month restored a voter-approved amendment denying citizenship to non-Native American descendants of tribal members' former black slaves. The court reversed a lower court ruling that had voided the amendment approved by trial voters in 2007. The court's decision affected an estimated 2,800 freedmen.
What's at stake for the estimated 2,800 freedmen: a vote over who gets to lead the tribe's $600 million annual budget, wield veto power over the tribe's agenda ("which is crucial," the news story says, "since many tribal members live outside Oklahoma"), and oversee its casinos and healthcare facilities. What's at stake for the genetic Cherokee: a bunch of folks with an oblique relationship to Cherokee-ness having political influence over the tribe's future.
I'm going to take a risk and venture a hypothesis.
In the next decade or so, as an older generation concerned with maintaining tradition (as they define it) dies away and the rest of the U.S. slides deeper into trouble (drug war, economy, etc., etc.), the reservations' unique legal status will allow them to become oases of sanity (pot, gay marriage, etc.). Being registered as Choctaw or Cherokee or Suquamish will become less of a cultural proposition and more of an economic/political one.
According to Indians in the Making by historian Alexandra Harmon, Indian "tribes" in the Puget Sound area were invented during the treaty-making process, which involved government agents identifying powerful families to negotiate with and build a "tribal" infrastructure around. That centuries-old political jockeying is why, in part, the Tulalip keep trying to legally block the Duwamish from being recognized as tribe.
The business of Indian-ness—once perceived as a liability, increasingly perceived as an asset—is going to get much more complicated in the very near future.