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by Cynthia Nelson

Debate Over "Indianness" A Flashback To COINTELPRO

(PNS) -- "What's wrong with being all black? Are you too good to be just black?" Often, black folks who acknowledge and honor their Native American family lineage are misunderstood and criticized. But separating the two groups is complex, and not often helpful -- it's estimated that 85 percent of African Americans have Native ancestry.

And divisiveness comes from all directions. On March 3, the Cherokee Nation voted to expel many black members, known as Freedmen.

The expulsion could have a far-reaching effect, as other tribes follow the precedent. Ignorance and misinformation run rampant about the Freedmen. One widely circulated email characterized them as "infiltrators" trying to cash in on Cherokee culture and resources. While most statements aren't that inflammatory, debate tends to be about blood quantum and portraying Freedmen as outsiders.

Before African enslavement began on this continent, an Indian slave trade florished. Some tribes integrated war captives into their society to replace their own lost warriors and treated them as equals; others mutilated and tortured captives from opposing tribes. Irrespective of how captives had been treated, European colonists readily bought or traded for them or captured Indians outright for slave labor. Profiteers sought to avoid the cost of transport from Africa, but as Indians were able to escape into familiar terrain and began to decline in population -- due to the fighting and European diseases -- the African slave trade developed. Pictures from the era show Indians shackled together with Africans on the auction block.

Some First Nations assimilated to help their odds of survival. Designated as the "Five Civilized Tribes," the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole held African slaves, and some fought for the Confederacy. But solidarity persisted even so: Seminoles helped African slaves escape into the Everglades, an area very difficult for whites to navigate.

Check out pictures of the Trail of Tears -- you'll see black and Native American faces integrated. Warriors from Africa fought alongside Native warriors. Sometimes Native Americans pretended black family and community members were slaves in order to keep white intruders from re-kidnapping them. Cherokees rescinded their alliance with the Confederacy and abolished slavery three years before the U.S. did -- hence, the term "Freedmen."

The Cherokee Nation wrote in their treaty of 1866 that their former slaves had full rights of citizenship, regardless of whether they had any Cherokee blood lineage. In this treaty, they also extended citizenship to the Delaware and Shawnee. The March 3 vote this year to disenroll Freedmen did not affect the Delaware or Shawnee or any adopted -- or bought-in -- white members. It is clearly discriminatory.

In 1887, the U.S. government imposed a new way of titling land. First Nations could no longer hold land communally, as a tribe. Individual members could hold single lots, but in order to register, they had to sign up on a government roll. Many people feared government persecution if their ethnicity was formally registered and refused to sign up for the program. Those who did register for a share usually ended up selling it to white settlers seeking farm land or oil wealth. Although this provided some badly-needed income for Indians, the loss of land further devastated tribes over subsequent generations.

The Dawes Commission was the government agency charged with enforcing this new allotment system, and in the subsequent two decades, they conducted a census of Native Americans. Dawes commissioners who thought someone "looked black" did not list that person as having Indian lineage -- not even those who named their Indian parent! -- but those appearing to be Cherokee mixed with white were listed as Cherokee. The Dawes Commission erased many black tribe members from the official U.S. rolls, though they had been full Cherokees for decades.

Why would so many in the Cherokee Nation want to limit membership?

The March 3 vote was on whether Cherokee Nation citizenship is based on having an ancestor on the Dawes rolls, or on the rolls at the time of the 1866 treaty. Many in favor of expelling Freedmen say that the decision should be the business of Cherokees only -- but until very recently, Freedmen were Cherokees. The voices of Freedmen are curiously absent from that argument.

Why would so many in the Cherokee Nation want to limit membership to a definition created under devastating oppression? Sharing limited resources is the heart of the matter, according to members in favor of the expulsion.

The tribe has an annual budget of $300 million, with 729,533 members according to the 2000 U.S. census. A Cherokee spokesman, however, believes this was an undercount, due to difficulty in finding all residences in rural areas. Using the conservative numbers means that, at most, the budget provides $411 per member. Eighty percent of the budget comes from the federal government.

Rather than taking responsibility and responding with an increase in support, the federal government has done nothing while the tribe fractures itself over crumbs. A kind of support is coming from just one elected official: Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., who is drafting legislation to cut off the Cherokee Nation's funding altogether, in response to the vote. That measure would nail shut the coffin that the government has been building around the tribe for centuries, but at least it has gotten the attention of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The BIA was silent on the issue until Rep. Watson's announcement. Now, they are saying the vote may not have been legal. The change in membership criteria isn't recognized by the U.S. until the Secretary of the Interior signs on it, and the hope is that the BIA will pressure the secretary not to sign.

"I am insulted that the Native American community assumes that I am after casino money"

What are Bay Area descendants of the Freedmen saying about the vote? Is tribal membership important only for a measly few hundred dollars?

At the April meeting of the black Native American Association -- meetings are heald monthly at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland -- folks were angry and critical, but not bitter. The discussion stayed on context, not blame. The focus was about history: denied membership on the Dawes rolls; shared history on the slave-auction block and on the Trail of Tears; how Indian ancestry was further repressed when claiming it meant you could be "lynched, killed or cut up"; and Indian history of slave-owning and intermarrying.

There was no benefit to black Native Americans claiming their Native ancestry when Indians were not freed under the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, the less Indian the better: If you claimed to be more than half Native American, you were considered incompetent and the U.S. government had even more power over your Dawes-granted land -- even full-blooded Indians often registered as half-blood. And after selling Dawes lots, Native Americans were left landless but no longer penniless, whereas black folks could own land but had no money. Folks helped each other out in such circumstances.

Some at the meeting critiqued the hypocrisy of biracial -- Native and white -- council members wanting to eject members with other multiracial backgrounds. Mostly though, the focus of the BNAA is honoring ALL your ancestors, black and indigenous. Not coincidentally, everyone at the meeting had ancestors in at least one of the Five Tribes. They leave out the term "civilized," as it perpetuates the stereotype of Indians as "savages." Tribal community should be about culture and family, not simply money, they say.

"I am insulted that the Native American community assumes that I am after casino money and educational opportunities," says BNAA member Loys Everett. "I can get my own educational opportunities already. What I am after is celebrating what I am, which is African and Native American. I want to know who my family is; I want to find my Native American relatives. I feel that coming to powwows enables me to celebrate my culture."

Similarly, BNAA member Billy Trice has chosen not to enroll, though his family is Cherokee on his great-grandmother's side. For him, "it is a way of life, putting community before profits." Influenced by leaders such as Geronimo, he works for indigenous people's rights and for clean water.

Another frequent topic at BNAA meetings is the response of family members when black folks begin to identify as multiracial. Often friends and relatives feel that you are rejecting your blackness. Our lives are full with communicating with those close to us, getting through the day-to-day and honoring where we came from. We don't need old, racist definitions imposing on our identity and dividing us further.

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Albion Monitor   May 10, 2007   (

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