With Casino Money at Stake, Cherokees Divided About Black Members Who Want to Share in the Profits

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The Cherokee kept black slaves until 1866, when an emancipation treaty freed them from bondage and granted them full tribal citizenship. Known as the Freedmen, these men and women were embraced by the Cherokee as equals, and often married the offspring of their former masters.

There are at least 25,000 direct descendants of Freedmen who cannot join Oklahoma's largest tribes. Once paragons of racial inclusion and assimilation, the Native American sovereign nations have done an about-face and systematically pushed out people of African descent. "There's never been any stigma about intermarriage," says Stu Phillips, editor of The Seminole Producer, a local newspaper in central Oklahoma. "You've got Indians marrying whites, Indians marrying blacks. It was never a problem until they got some money."

hese are boom times for the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma - the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole - due in no small part to the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that allowed the tribes to construct their own casinos. The Chickasaw's net assets have more than doubled to $315 million in the two years since it opened the mammoth WinStar Casinos complex in Thackerville. The corporate arm of the Cherokee Nation, Cherokee Nation Enterprises, is on track to make nearly $70 million this year thanks to a new casino in Catoosa. Then there's the government reparations fund. In 1990, the Seminoles received a $56 million settlement as compensation for the seizure of the tribe's ancestral lands in Florida almost 200 years ago.

The casino profits and make-good money have increased the standard of living for the recognized members of the tribes who make their homes in some of the poorest areas in the US. Cherokee Nation Enterprises allocates 25 percent of profits to the Cherokee government, which distributes the money in ways designed to help end the cycle of poverty - college scholarships, health care, and low-interest home loans. And the Seminole Nation offers grants for home repairs, which many of the ramshackle structures in Seminole County can sorely use. On the outskirts of Wewoka, the county seat, families loll on wooden porches that seem one gust of wind away from collapse.

And so, in recent years, a rush of Indians has come forward to claim tribal citizenship and get their share of the benefits. In 1980, there were 50,000 members of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma; today, there are more than a quarter million. But even as the official ranks of the Five Civilized Tribes have swelled, they've revised membership guidelines to exclude the Freedmen.

For the better part of the 20th century, black Indians were permitted to vote in elections, sit on tribal councils, and receive benefits. Tribal leaders now insist that the Freedmen were never actually citizens and that they will never attain the honor of membership because they don't have Native American blood. In 1983, the Cherokee tribe established a rule requiring citizens to carry a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. This federal document is available to anyone whose ancestors are listed on the Dawes Roll - a 1906 Indian census that excludes Freedmen. In 2000, the Seminoles expelled all 2,000 black members and denied their families a cut of the reparations money - never mind that their ancestors joined the tribe in the 18th century, endured the march from Florida to Oklahoma in the 1830s, and have considered themselves Indian for generations.

Outraged, numerous Freedmen have turned to the courts for help.

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Barbara Krauthamer - 10/12/2005

While this article addresses the important issue of anti-black racism in the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole nations, it mistakenly suggests that the exclusion of black people from tribal citizenship is a recent phenomenon stemming from Indians’ avarice. As the first sentence in the article makes clear, Indians in these five nations owned black people as slaves from the late eighteenth century through the end of the Civil War. Indeed, factions of each nation except the Seminole sided with the Confederacy during the war. In the autumn of 1865, the nations renegotiated treaties with the United States and were required to abolish slavery and extend citizenship to freedpeople. There are abundant records that clearly detail both Indian slaveholders’ reluctance to acknowledge black people’s freedom and an even greater unwillingness that endured throughout the latter half of nineteenth century to recognize black people as legitimate participants in the nations’ social and political order. Black men and women in the Indian nations routinely complained to federal authorities about the violence leveled against them by former slaveholders and for decades they protested the legal measures designed to ensure their exclusion from political participation. The five slaveholding Indian nations were hardly “paragons of racial inclusion and assimilation” as the article asserts. Arguments about Indian sovereignty notwithstanding, recent efforts to exclude black people from tribal membership have a long history that predates the gaming boom of the past twenty years and this history of slavery, violence and discrimination should not be effaced or simply reduced to well-worn stereotypes of Indian greed.