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Citizenship Debate

Not qualifying as a Cherokee citizen does not necessarily mean you aren't a "Cherokee." A statement on the Cherokee Nation web site says:

The Cherokee Nation does not question anyone's claims of heritage or ancestry, but merely points out the significant difference between claiming heritage and having citizenship in a federally recognized Indian tribe. The Nation encourages people of Cherokee heritage to take pride in and become active in heritage and cultural organizations even if they are not eligible for citizenship.

Many of the reasons that Cherokee tribes use to justify the exclusion of some citizens are simply no longer valid arguments. I'll attempt to address each point individually, which will hopefully serve as a startng point for future discussions on tribal citizenship.

The refusal of the tribes to consider DNA as legal evidence of ancestry.
On February 28th, 2008 I introduced my One Blood, One People, One Nation campaign as a fair plan to re-unite the tribes of all Native Americans using DNA as proof of true blood quantum.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee (who use DNA to determine parents) say, "Unfortunately DNA testing has not advanced to the point of determining tribal affiliation." This is no longer a true statement.

Your DNA is considered legal proof of identity when presented in court as evidence of a crime. DNA is also used as legal evidence to determine biological parents in a court of law. This is true for all federal, state, and even tribal courts. Why then is DNA not considered as legal and scientific proof of ancestry by the tribes? A simple (and not very expensive) DNA test proves beyond a doubt if a person is of true Cherokee descent.

For more information about the proposal, see the Cherokee DNA section of this web site.

The rolls used as the basis for citizenship are not accurate.
I don't think the rolls were intentionally inaccurate. As it is with the census today, it was common for a single family member to provide all of the information for their entire family. Similar to the immigrant data collected on Ellis Island, the record keepers often spelled names as they sounded which creates discrepancies, not as they were spelt. These minor errors can cause great confusion when researching genealogy.

As a real-life example specific to the Cherokee, consider one of their most important chiefs. Chief Ostenaco is also known as Cunne Shote, Cumna Catogue, and Stalking Turkey. He was often confused with his uncle who was Standing Turkey. According to the writings by John Mooney, his Cherokee name is "Aganstata." His tombstone in Chota, Tennessee says, "Oconastota - Great Warrior of the Cherokees"

Another example is my grandmother Marie, who in one official document is listed as Mary. Her sibling Germaine is spelled several different ways depending on the document.

Until recently, in some states (such as Alabama) it was illegal to even be an Indian. Many true Cherokees were forced to lie about their ancestry to avoid deportation to a reservation, imprisonment, and in some cases death.

The rolls used as the basis for citizenship are not a complete count of the Cherokee people.
Prior to the forced removal, Cherokees inhabited the land that is now Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. There were small towns of Cherokees (like New Echota), but there were always people out working in the fields, while many others were out searching for food on the vast tribal hunting grounds. There was no possible way for them to accurately count all of the tribal members.

There are several communities of full-blooded Cherokees that were never counted, and therefore not eligible to join the tribes. Many Native Americans were sold as slaves and sent by ship to other colonies. Some of those slave ships sank during the journey, and so there are many full-bloods that now inhabit several small tropical islands. A Georgia tribe states, "..if your ancestor was not included on one of the many Cherokee rolls for whatever reason they chose, then they basically gave up their citizenship in the Cherokee nation. If that is your case, then you will have to accept their decision." So these full-blooded brothers and sisters lose their citizenship for this? That doesn't seem very fair.

To join the Oklahoma tribe, you must be listed on the 1906 Dawes roll. To join the Eastern Band, you must be listed on the 1924 Baker Roll. The following text is from the Cherokee Nation web site:

The Dawes Rolls (or Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, or Dawes Commission of Final Rolls) were created by the Dawes Commission. The Commission, authorized by United States Congress in 1893, was required to negotiate with the Five Civilized Tribes to convince them to agree to an allotment plan and dissolution of the reservation system. One of the consequences was the creation of rolls of the members of the five tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole). The rolls were needed to assign the allotments and to provide an equitable division of all monies obtained. These rolls became known as the Dawes Rolls. The Dawes Commission was quickly flooded by applicants from all over the country trying to get on the rolls.

The Commission went to the individual tribes to obtain the membership lists but the first attempts were inadequate. Finally Congress passed the Curtis Act in 1898 which had a provision that a new roll would be taken and supersede all previous rolls.

More than 250,000 people applied for membership, and the Dawes Commission enrolled just over 100,000. An act of Congress on April 26, 1906, closed the rolls on March 5, 1907. An additional 312 persons were enrolled under an act approved August 1, 1914.

The rolls are, for the most part, considered complete. Some Indians did not apply because of their displeasure with the allotment process and others applied but were rejected because of the residency requirements. Also, many non Indians of white ancestry applied to the Dawes Commission trying to pass themselves off as Indian but were later rejected. The reason they applied to the Dawes Rolls was because they wanted allotments. Notable among those who resisted enrollment were Muscogee Chitto Harjo (Crazy Snake), and Cherokee Redbird Smith. Both Harjo and Smith were eventually coerced into enrolling, but some full-blood hiding in the Cookson Hills never did enroll. Although some Indians chose not to enroll, many of these Indians were later enrolled by force whether they wanted to participate or not. Some of these people were arrested and forced to enroll, while other were enrolled on their behalf by people in their communities. Generally, though, to prove membership in any of the Five Civilized Tribes you must prove descent from a person listed as a citizen on the final rolls. Courts have upheld this rule even when it has been proven that a brother or sister of an ancestor was listed on the rolls but not the direct ancestor himself/herself.

This entire statement is completely contradictory with itself, and with the facts. None of these statements inspire much confidence in these rolls: "considered complete," yet "Some Indians did not apply." More than 250,000 people applied, yet only 100,000 were enrolled. The Indians who chose not to enroll were arrested, forced to enroll, or enrolled on their behalf by their communities. "First attempts were inadequate, " yet a "new roll would be taken and supersede all previous rolls." "some full-blood hiding in the Cookson Hills never did enroll. Muscogee Chitto Harjo (Crazy Snake), and Cherokee Redbird Smith were coerced into enrolling

Were there lots of people taking advantage of the situation? Yes, and I acknowledge that not everyone being counted by the rolls were truly Cherokee. But based on their own statements, it is very clear that there were thousands of true Native Americans who were never counted on any of these rolls.

Dilution of culture from the state tribes.
Analogy: If you were born in Alabama, but you now live in Georgia - would you apply for a drivers license from Alabama or Georgia? A drivers license from either state still gives you the privilege to drive, but you wouldn't get your license from where you are from, but from where you live. Getting your license in Georgia does not mean you aren't really from Alabama.

My ancestors lived in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. My family lives in Alabama, so we are all members of the Echota Cherokee Tribe of Alabama. Why in the world would we want to be a member of a tribe that doesn't exist where we live? Being a member of a state tribe, does not mean you give up your heritage. Tribal laws prevent someone from being a citizen of more than one tribe. Not just anyone can join our tribe, it requires extensive documentation. In fact, the process is so thorough that when my family records were destroyed, we were able to replace the lost data by using the tribal records.

There are people out there who are exploiting the Cherokee, but I believe the majority of people are being honest. They are either Cherokee or at least have a reason to believe they are Cherokee.

A personal example: Much of my family lives in Cherokee, Alabama. Both "Cherokee" and "Alabama" are named after Indians. I grew up in Tuscumbia which is named after an Indian. Tuscumbia is in Colbert County, which is named after an Indian. To say there are no legitimate Indians left around here is a preposterous statement. In fact, most people in this area have blood from more than one tribe (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Creek).

Because of the recent behaviour of the federal tribes, there are many who are truly Cherokee, but they do not want to be associated with any of the main tribes. Since the federal tribes deny the very existence of these Cherokees, they have banded together and started their own Cherokee tribe. Even if the state tribes are fakes or frauds, not all of those people are illegitimate.

The best thing the federal tribes can do to prevent these groups, is to recognize all of those who have a legitimate claim to citizenship. Reach out to them. They want to belong and they want to contribute to Cherokee society. When these groups get historical facts wrong or misinterpret the culture - Educate them, don't condemn them.

Tradition. The greatest legacy of the Cherokee people is their tradition of acceptance of non-Cherokees.

Consider the case of Samuel Worcester, He was a "white" missionary, yet his family was considered part of the tribe. When they made it illegal for whites to live among the Indians, Worcester went to jail instead of leaving the tribe. Would someone not "fully accepted" into the tribe make such a sacrifice? I think not.

Many wealthy Cherokees were slave owners, and the slave families were accepted into the tribe. Sadly, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma recently chose to amend their Constitution in order to exclude descendants listed on the Intermarried White and Freedmen rolls from their citizenship.

Another example of equality among the Cherokee is the important role that women played within their society. When preparing the Cherokee peace delegation to London, Lieutenant Timberlake was shocked that the Cherokee would "allow their women full liberty, without fear of punishment." Attakullakulla then asks, "Since white men, as well as red, were born of women, is it not the custom of the white people to also admit their women into the council?"

Each tribe consists of seven clans, and there is even a division of the Long Hair Clan (Anigilohi) that is specifically called Strangers: "Prisoners of war, orphans of other tribes, and others with no Cherokee tribe were often adopted into this clan, thus the name Strangers."

Fundamental equality through a Constitution
Human rights should never be left up to vote. If the United States had only recognized rights by vote, there would still be slavery, women wouldn't be able to vote, and many civil rights would be nonexistent. A government's responsibility is to make life fair for all of it's people.

In 2006, the Cherokee Nation amended their Constitution to further define who is considered a Cherokee Citizen. Principal Chief Chad Smith of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma stated, "Our Constitution has set the standard for citizenship." Their web site states:

The Cherokee Nation voted on March 3, 2007 to amend our Constitution to clarify eligibility for Cherokee citizenship. An overwhelming majority voted that to be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, you must be able to trace your lineage to one Indian ancestor listed on the base roll of our people, also known as the Dawes Roll. Our Constitution has been amended accordingly.

Heritage is different from citizenship. Many people with genuine Indian heritage will never meet the qualifications to become citizens in a federally recognized tribe. The Cherokee Nation does not question anyone's claims of heritage or ancestry, but merely points out the significant difference between claiming heritage and having citizenship in a federally recognized Indian tribe. We encourage people of Cherokee heritage to take pride in and become active in heritage and cultural organizations even if they are not eligible for citizenship.

Ancestors of Cherokee Nation citizens were forcibly removed from their homes in Tennessee and the southeast to the Indian Territory in 1838-39 and the Cherokee Nation contends that no Cherokee clans, bands, tribes or nations were left behind or have continued to exist in Tennessee.

Any time you are changing your Constitution to exclude people, you are heading in the wrong direction. The majority of people may have spoken, but the majority can also be very wrong.

The proper calculation of blood quantum.
In my region of Alabama, there were primarily four tribes: the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Creek. Many whites married into these tribes, and sometimes members from different tribes married each other. That means there are some people who may be truly Native American, but their blood quantum is too low to gain citizenship into any single tribe. The laws of the Cherokee tribes do not allow you to be a member of any other tribe, even if the other tribe is also Cherokee.

As you can see, there are still many serious issues surrounding the citizenship criteria of Native Americans. Despite all of the horrible things that our people have suffered through, we still have the power to become united again as a single nation. It is completely up to us to write the next chapter of our history.

Will you join me?