This is the column Chief Smith was talking about:
'Black' Cherokees fight for heritage
By Lois Hatton
A group of Americans who are not fully black or fully Indian are fighting for the survival of their identity, culture, history and economic future. Life for these black Indians can be difficult, no matter their tribal affiliation.
Lynn Hart, a black Yankton Sioux, says he regularly experiences racism. "When I go to the reservation, people see me as black. When I walk among blacks, they see me as Indian." But black Cherokees, commonly called Cherokee Freedmen, have recently been dealt a crueler blow.
In March, Cherokee tribal members voted to remove members who had African-American heritage — a total of 2,800 people. Why now? Money seems to be a motivating factor. Members receive health care, education and housing benefits. Each also has voting rights in tribal elections. But more important, each member has a stake in growing casino revenue.
The Freedmen point to a 1866 treaty that has linked them to Cherokee nation for generations. The treaty says, "All the Cherokees and freed persons who were formerly slaves to any Cherokee, and all free Negroes not having been such slaves" were given full Cherokee citizenship. To motivate the Cherokee to rescind what many consider to be a racist action, Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., with the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, wants to deny the Cherokee nation all federal funding for education, health care and housing, as well as to deprive them of their casino and oil revenue until the issue is resolved by the tribe or the courts.
Cherokees and African-Americans have a shared history of mistreatment. Many escaped slaves found refuge with Indians; others married into the tribe; and still others were slaves of Cherokees. In 1838, thousands of armed U.S. troops forced the Cherokee nation to relocate to Oklahoma. Together, the Cherokee and black Freedman walked what became known as the Trail of Tears — a 2,000-mile trek from their Georgia home to Oklahoma. Of the 16,000 people who started the journey, more than 4,000 died along the way.
Around the turn of the century, the Dawes Commission was established to determine land distribution to Cherokees who were relocated in Oklahoma. Over time, the census-like tally it conducted became the official document to verify Native American bloodlines. Some black Indians with Native American parents were not listed as part Indian on the Dawes rolls. Based solely on their skin color, they were listed as Freedmen.
The Cherokees are disenfranchising the Freedmen in the same way they were forcibly removed from their land. When we do not learn the lessons of history, we are inclined to repeat the errors.
Lois Hatton is a writer and columnist in Brookings, S.D., and author of Inspiration for a Lifetime.