Many in Indian Country are painfully aware of the circus performance that is this summer’s Principal Chief election for the largest federally recognized tribe in the U.S., the Cherokee Nation. This election season; however, has brought to the surface a plethora of social and economic issues from same-sex marriage, health care, citizenship of the descendants of former Cherokee slaves (Cherokee Freedmen) and the potential dismantling of the Cherokee Nation by the U.S. Department of the Interior for disobeying the 1866 Treaty (more details on that subject to follow). In an unprecedented turn-of-events, no Chief was chosen in the general election on June 25, 2011. Instead, following a runoff election, the Deputy Chief was selected to perform the curatorial duties of Principal Chief until the Special Election, to take place this coming September 24, 2011.
To give a little background, the Cherokee Nation are the descendents of the Cherokee people relocated to Indian Country — in what is now present-day Oklahoma — due to the Indian Removal Act of 1831, or the infamous Trail of Tears. Despite generations of U.S. Government attempts at destroying the Cherokee Nation, it remains a thriving and powerful economic and cultural force with over 288,749 citizens and its own unique language and writing system (Fact: Apple recently released the Cherokee syllabary for use on the iPhone).
Within the past three hundred years, the Cherokee Nation has signed over forty treaties with the U.S., in addition to those established with individual colonies prior to the constitution. These treaties have resulted in the surrendering of Cherokee territory in what are now parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee (Fact: Tennessee is named after the old Cherokee Nation capital). These treaties have arguably surrounded the Cherokee Nation with heavy bureaucratic red tape. Even so, the Cherokee people have managed to retain some forms of sovereignty.
Slavery has been part of Cherokee society since before European contact. The European form of chattel slavery was introduced as European colonial powers participated in the Indian slave trade, with the heaviest use occurring between 1670-1715. Europeans had up to 51,000 American Indians sold and traded during this time. From the 1830s to the 1860s, however, the Cherokee Nation adopted the European model of slavery and participated in African enslavement; by 1835 there were approximately 1,592 African slaves within the Cherokee Nation.
On February 18, 1863, following the example of the Emancipation Proclamation of the U.S., the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council passed “An Act Providing for the Abolition of Slavery in the Cherokee Nation” that emancipated all enslaved Africans within the Cherokee Nation; these became known as the Cherokee Freedmen.
Additionally, the Cherokee Nation signed the 1866 Treaty with the U.S. Stating that “all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as all free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months, and their descendants, shall have all the rights of native Cherokees.” By November 26, 1866 the Cherokee Nation constitution was ratified to reflect the treaty for Freedmen listed on the Dawes Rolls (system of forced enrollment by the U.S. government in its effort to dissolve the American Indian tribal reservation system) to be citizens of the Cherokee Nation.
More recently, the Principal Chief Act of 1970 forced the Cherokee Nation to have better voter qualifications to include the Cherokee Freedmen. The 1970s also saw the introduction of social benefits, like free health care, to federally recognized tribes.
In 1983, Principal Chief Ross Swimmer issued an order requiring individuals to obtain a CDIB (Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood) card to vote in the Cherokee Nation. This presented a problem for Cherokee Freedmen (many of whom have Cherokee lineages), who were listed in the Dawes Rolls under the Freedmen category, which gave no indication of whether or not individuals were Cherokee. In 1985, the problem was exacerbated further when Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller made CDIB cards mandatory for all Cherokee Nation citizens; Cherokee Freedmen were excluded entirely.
In 2006, Lucy Allen, a Cherokee Freedmen descendant argued to the Cherokee Supreme Court that the past orders were unconstitutional; the Court agreed on the grounds that the Constitution gave Freedmen citizenship.
One year later, a special election introduced a constitutional amendment to restrict citizenship to Indians by blood, permanently preventing Freedmen from being recognized as citizens of the Cherokee Nation.
Present Day Divisions – Divide and Conquer
Today the race for Prinicpal Chief is interwoven with the Freedmen debate and many other conflicting issues. Councilmember Bill John Baker and former Principal Chief Chad Smith are primary candidates. Since the general election in June 25, 2011, numerous recounts have already been necessary after electoral attempts have declared both of them winners. Both parties state that there have been some tampering with the votes; accordingly a court-mandated Special Election will be held on September 24, 2011 to officially announce a winner.
Another interesting factor pertaining to this election specifically is that on January 14, 2011, the Cherokee district court ruled that the Freedmen are still citizens — they must have realized that otherwise, the court would be violating the 1866 Treaty (explained above). While Smith stated that he supported the vote passed by Cherokee Citizens to amend the constitution and exclude Freedmen from citizenship, Baker said that the Cherokee Freedmen are a part of Cherokee history and that the Cherokee Nation is one of citizenship and not blood.
On August 22, 2011, the Cherokee Supreme court overruled the district court ruling; again disenfranchising the Freedmen of their citizenship (Fact: this has taken place after the Cherokee Freedmen voted for Principal Chief in the general election (June) and after they voted for the current Deputy Chief).
Just when one would think things could not get more complicated, the U.S. Government has stepped in, threatening to dismantle the Cherokee Nation using the power of the Department of the Interior. An excerpt from the letter below provides important insight:
Interesting — suddenly the U.S. is interested in implementing a treaty! Both running contenders are blaming each other for the situation. Bill John Baker has called out the lack of foresight that Chad Smith had as Chief for allowing an “illegal” vote to take place, and Smith has blamed Baker for supporting the Cherokee Freedmen and not supporting Cherokee Nation Sovereignty and the potential destruction of the entire Cherokee Nation.
To make things even more complicated, the letter also states that the Cherokee constitution needs to be approved by the U.S. Government (which overturns the 2005 same-sex ban amendment in the Cherokee constitution). An Oklahoma lesbian couple recently filed for marriage recognition in the Cherokee Nation (since Oklahoma state law bans same-sex marriage). Same-sex advocates will be looking at the candidates very closely as well.
But ultimately the question is…Will there even be an election on the 24th?
On Sept. 14, the Cherokee Nation Attorney General’s office filed a motion to review the August 22 decision by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court.
The newly elected Deputy Chief and Acting Principal Chief Joe Crittenden stated,
Crittenden added that Freedmen voted in June and July and he believes that they are entitled to vote again.
The U.S. Courts will be holding a hearing this coming Tuesday, September 20, 2011, and we will know then if an injunction will be placed on our pending election.
In my personal opinion, the letter is of grave concern. Looking at Cherokee history, we know that the U.S. is always looking for ways to break the Cherokee Nation’s sovereignty. Using the Freedmen issue as a means of accomplishing this goal is simply disgraceful.
For the rest of my fellow Cherokee citizens out there, what are your thoughts?
Please check out both candidates and their stances for Principal Chief (below) and remember to vote!