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No feather in their caps
For as long as she can remember, Evelyn Ross knew she was part Cherokee. Her grandparents told her they had Cherokee blood, and she recalls her mother and grandmother once receiving support checks from the Cherokee Nation.
As an adult, Mrs. Ross held a membership card that allowed her to vote in elections in the Cherokee Nation. Her husband, James Ross, is the grandson of Stick Ross, a Cherokee council member who served over 100 years ago and whose ancestors walked the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.
But Mrs. Ross, a 77-year-old resident of Tahlequah, Okla., is no longer recognized as a citizen by the Cherokee Nation. She lost her membership because her ancestors were registered as Cherokee Freedmen -- black slaves, formerly owned by Cherokee. When the Freedmen were emancipated by the Treaty of 1866, many were granted full tribal citizenship. Now many of their descendants have been shut out of the tribe, and they are fighting to be allowed back in.
Mrs. Ross and her husband learned they were no longer welcome in the tribe when they showed up at a Cherokee office to confirm their voter registration. "They said the Freedmen couldn't vote anymore, and they couldn't get any assistance," Mrs. Ross said. "You had to prove you had -- Cherokee in you."
Losing tribal membership means more than voting rights. They are no longer recognized as members of a community where citizens receive financial assistance, health care and the benefits of belonging to a tribe that has been buoyed by casino profits. Although Cherokee officials do not release financial information about the tribe's casinos, Indian gaming casinos in the United States brought in more than $18 billion in 2004.
Unfortunately for the Freedmen, tribal laws virtually prohibit them from proving their Cherokee ancestry. The Cherokee tribal council passed an act in 1983 requiring that all members hold a Certificate of Indian Blood. In order to obtain that certificate, applicants must demonstrate that their ancestors were on another list, the Dawes Rolls. Authorized by Congress in 1893, the Dawes Rolls were taken to determine land distribution. Now the Cherokee Nation uses inclusion on the rolls as a membership requirement, and whether the Freedmen were listed on them depends on who you ask.
"Anyone, no matter what ethnicity they are, may be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation if they are registered on the Dawes Rolls," said Mike Miller, a spokesman for the Cherokee Nation. But the Freedmen, he said, are not on the Rolls. "We never tell people they don't have Cherokee ancestry. What we tell them is, they're not eligible for citizenship in the Cherokee Nation."
The Freedmen disagree. "They are on it, and they're citizens of the tribe," said Jon Velie, a Norman, Okla., lawyer who filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Freedmen. "The Freedmen are on the Dawes Rolls. They're just segregated."
No one -- Cherokee officials included -- argues that the Dawes Rolls are entirely fair. Along with the roster of Cherokee Indians, government officials composed a Cherokee Freedmen roll. People were sometimes divided based on what they looked like, and stories abound of siblings ending up on different rolls because their skin tones differed.
"I don't think anyone would claim the Dawes Roll is perfect," said Mr. Miller. "But it's what we've got 100 years later."
Tribe officials emphasize that the Cherokee Nation has the right to enforce its laws. "You have to look at it as a sovereign nation," said Randy Gibson, a spokesman for the Cherokee Nation. "Just like you're a citizen of the United States."
Mr. Velie's client sued the U.S. government in 2003 to require the Cherokee Nation to honor the Treaty of 1866 and grant the Freedmen voting rights.
The Cherokee Nation is "trying to strengthen their sovereignty by removing the oversight of the U.S. government," Mr. Velie said. "The tribes hide behind the fact that they are sovereignly immune. They're saying, 'We're going to treat our former slaves as the second-class citizens they are.' It's really repugnant."
He argues that although the Cherokee no longer keep slaves, exiling Freedmen from the tribe is a "badge of slavery" that violates the treaty.
The lawsuit's lead plaintiff is Marilyn Vann, a Freedman descendant who thinks she deserves to have her heritage recognized, said Freedmen descendants are "confused, angry and bitter."
"We've always considered ourselves to be Cherokee," said Mrs. Vann. "That's what we are."
Cherokee officials tell critics their tribe has historically been viewed as one of the most inclusive, having adopted members of the Shawnee and Delaware tribes. "One thing that's funny ... the Cherokee Nation has probably one of the more inclusive membership policies," said Mr. Miller. "It's not a race-based issue."
Some Freedmen have turned to genetics to prove conclusively they have Cherokee blood. A number of companies sell DNA test kits. A user can swab the inside of his or her cheek and send the cell samples to a lab, where technicians look for genetic variations that crop up in specific ethnicities.
But the procedure is new and, by all accounts, an imprecise science. Working with a limited pool of genetic samples, the laboratories cannot yet definitively pinpoint a subject's origins.
Cherokee leaders say genetic evidence is irrelevent. "They can't tell you at all what tribe you might be," said Mr. Miller. He said test results revealing Native American ancestry are "vague" and do not affect a person's legal standing -- in other words, even if they prove they have Cherokee ancestors, they still aren't on the Dawes Roll.
"DNA proves our case, but we've got to get past jurisdiction first," said Mr. Velie. "Once we get past jurisdiction, we don't even have to go to DNA." The important issue, the Freedmen argue, is that the Cherokee Nation honor the Treaty of 1866. "The Cherokee Nation is utilizing the Dawes Commission Rolls to essentially keep the former slaves in an oppressed status, where they can't vote for their tribal leadership or constitutional amendments," said Mr. Velie.
Mrs. Vann agreed. "You cannot make changes in your nation, and you are not completely a part of your community if you don't have voting rights," she said.
"We have not asked for apologies," said Mrs. Vann. "Nobody is asking for reparations. All we're asking for is the right the tribal leaders in 1866 promised, and our rights under the [U.S.] Constitution."
Back in Tahlequah, Mrs. Ross just doesn't understand why she is no longer regarded as a member of her great-grandfather's tribe. "It shouldn't be like that," she said. "They should help everyone that was on the roll. If you have a roll number, you should be entitled ... just like the rest of them."
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