Members of the Cherokee Nation recently (Saturday, March 3, 2007) voted to change the Cherokee Nation’s constitution to revoke membership from approximately 2800 descendants of slaves once owned by Cherokees. As Murray Evans of the Associated Press writes in an article in the online Indian Country Today for March 12, 2007, the Cherokee Supreme Court had affirmed in a 2006 ruling that an 1866 treaty had granted then recently freed slaves formerly owned by Cherokees and their descendants tribal citizenship. The recent election was a ballot initiative to change the Cherokee constitution to strip descendants of these “freedmen” of this citizenship and restrict membership in the tribe to individuals with traceable descent to the tribe “by blood.”
Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith presents the vote as purely an example of tribal self-determination. He is quoted by Evans, “The Cherokee people exercised the most basic democratic right, the right to vote. Their voice is clear as to who should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation. No one else has the right to make that determination.” (Frankly their voice is not clear. Smith presents the turnout of over 8700 voters, more than in most Cherokee elections, as a high turnout related to the importance of identity. He’s likely right that the importance of this particular issue in questions of core identity drove a higher voter turnout than normal; at the same time, the turnout can be viewed quite differently in terms of the clarity of the results. As Ben Fenwick of Reuters news service reported on March 6, 2007, “The tribe has about 250,000 people, but only 8,500 cast ballots in Saturday’s vote.”) Smith is also right that the vote is about self determination, but it is certainly not just about self determination. Voters could have equally determined to not kick out the descendants of Cherokee slaves.
There are at least two issues at play in voters’ decisions – one is the importance of being able to assert self determination and autonomy, but second is economics. Self determination and autonomy are touchy issues for many Native Americans, and for good reason. For the past couple centuries, the ability of most Native Americans to autonomously determine their own destinies has been highly circumscribed when not eliminated all together. Today, when Native American groups are occasionally able to take proactive steps to place their communities on stronger economic or political footing, there is usually resistance – witness the controversy that tends to arise any time a particular group attempts to open a tribal casino, or the current controversy surrounding the opening of the Grand Canyon Skywalk by the Hualapai (see my post below from March 8). Quite often, real autonomy and self determination for Native American communities is restricted to actions of a partly symbolic gesture that have little or no effect on North American society generally (for example, the Umatilla tribe’s persistence in trying to retain the remains of “Kennewick Man” despite any even remote empirical connection to their tribe [though there is logic to their claim – since they claim that they have always lived where they live now, and that before Euro-Americans arrived only they had lived there, Kennewick Man can’t be anything other than Umatilla], or the Makah tribe’s attempts to engage in whaling as an expression of cultural heritage). Because self determination if usually so circumscribed, and because even in the case of symbolic gestures they are often resisted by the non-Native public, the ability to assert self determination in these limited circumstances becomes more important. Though this can’t be proven, I suspect that the vociferousness of the Umatilla in their claims for Kennewick Man or the Cherokee in revising their tribal membership would be altered or moderated if they had greater overall political and economic autonomy and self determination.
Money is also important here. Casinos are one way in which some Native American groups have been able to improve the economic position of their communities in recent years and assert greater autonomy. Problems can accompany casinos as well, though, and one common problem that arises is infighting over who gets to share in the spoils of gambling profits. Although this issue is strangely absent from much reporting I’ve seen on the Cherokee vote, Fenwick writes, “Exclusion from the tribe means the black Cherokees cannot vote in tribal elections or receive entitlements such as health benefits or a share of casino revenues on tribal lands.” There’s the rub. One thing people were voting to do when they voted to exclude Black Cherokees was voting to increase their own shares of casino revenues. This doesn’t seem to have been the only, or even necessarily the main issue, or it would seem that more news reports should have picked up on this dynamic, but at the same time, I find it hard to imagine the sustained effort of the ballot initiative (and the 77 percent vote in favor of excluding Black Cherokees) without this economic component.
It’s clear that Cherokees should have the same basic human right to self determination and autonomy as anyone else. It’s not clear that voting to exclude individuals who help to constitute the polity is constitutionally legitimate. The vote is highly disappointing in that it smacks of racism and it denies the very self determination to Black Cherokees that Principal Chief Smith so strongly asserts for Cherokees in general.