After a long legal fight, the Cherokee nation ousted thousands of descendants of black slaves who had long been official members of the tribe.
The Cherokee Supreme Court (the tribe is a sovereign nation) ruled this week a 2007 constitutional amendment that required Cherokee blood in order to belong to the tribe could stand.
"This is racism and apartheid in the 21st century," Marilyn Vann, the lead plaintiff in the case and a freedman leader, told Reuters.
The controversy over the freedmen's status is at least in part about money. The Cherokee nation, the second-largest Native American tribe in the country, receives money from the federal government and earns money from its stake in the lucrative gambling industry, which totaled $26.4 billion for all tribes in 2009. In the run-up to the 2007 amendment vote, some proponents of expelling the freedmen suggested that more blacks might apply for membership to receive tribal money.
In the 1800s, the U.S. government passed a law forcing members of the Cherokee nation from their ancestral lands in the Deep South to make room for white settlers. The Cherokee -- as well as their black slaves -- were forcibly marched west of the Mississippi River to the Oklahoma territory during the "Trail of Tears," resulting in the deaths of thousands of Native Americans.
After the Civil War, the Cherokee formally admitted by treaty their slaves' descendants into the nation.
Before the 2007 passage of the amendment, some descendants of the freedmen said the vote on their status within the nation expressed a desire by many tribe members to paper over their slave-owning past. But the tribe’s leadership disagreed. "It's a basic, inherent right to determine our own citizenry," a Cherokee leader told the Washington Post. "We paid very dearly for those rights."