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Jim Crow in Indian Country


Imagine yourself as an African American and resident of the State of Alabama in 1964, the year that President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the historic Civil Rights Act. And again imagine in 1964 that Alabama Governor George Wallace, in an act of defiance that not even he considered, introduced legislation to expel all African Americans from Alabama.

Now fast forward to the year 2007, over four decades later, when the citizens of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma voted last March to expel their black citizens in a manner that equaled if not surpassed the most vitriolic attacks against African Americans in the once segregated South.

Many Americans do not realize that some Native American tribes owned slaves of African descent. As an independently recognized nation in the 19th Century, the Cherokee Nation embraced and promoted African slavery, a position it maintained after removal to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) in the 1830s.

During the Civil War, the Cherokee Nation fought on the side of the Confederacy in order to preserve its southern slaveholding tradition of trafficking in the ownership and sale of black slaves. In fact, Stand Waite, the last Confederate General to surrender to the Union Army, was Cherokee.

The Cherokee Nation emancipated all its slaves in 1863. In 1866, the Cherokee Nation signed a new treaty with the United States Government that formally ended the practice of slavery and made the former slaves citizens of the Cherokee Nation. The Treaty of 1866 resulted in an amendment to the Cherokee constitution that same year, which read in part: "All native born Cherokees, all Indians, and whites legally members of the nation by adoption, and all freedmen (the term used for freed slaves of African descendants of the Cherokee Nation) shall be taken and deemed to be citizens of the Cherokee Nation."

Toward the end of the 19th Century, a distinction, a product of the new Jim Crow South and later codified in practice by the U.S. Government, had emerged between black freedmen Cherokees and those who were categorized as Cherokee by blood. The distinction is used today by the current Cherokee leadership that claims it is primarily concerned about preserving the Cherokee Nation's heritage for those who can prove that they have Cherokee blood lineage.

But such claims, as Professor Robert Warrior of the University of Oklahoma elegantly makes the case, "fail to rise to the level of those earlier Cherokees who understood that the tragic absurdity of reconciling a nation to its history of slavery requires wisdom and compassion, not insulting and ridiculous appeals to faulty membership requirements and the poses of victim-hood."

Today, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma receives roughly $300 million a year in federal taxpayer dollars. The Cherokee Nation is also the beneficiary of a federal gaming franchise that is estimated to yield it another $300 million yearly. This is not an insignificant amount of money.

If the Cherokee Nation is allowed to pursue its current policy of expelling black descendants of the Cherokee Nation, black descendants obviously will not be able to receive federal assistance from the Cherokee Nation in the form of health, education, and housing assistance.

I do not believe that your or my taxpayer dollars should go to any group that practices discrimination. First and foremost, it is against the law. That is why I have introduced legislation, H.R. 2824, that cuts off all U.S. government relations with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma until it agrees to accept the black descendants of the Cherokees as full participating citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

I respect the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma as a sovereign entity. But no sovereign nation, particularly one within the confines of the United States, should be given a free pass to exercise its sovereign rights to expel its citizens on the basis of ethnicity, class, or race. And when a nation violates its treaty obligations with the United States, Congress is obliged to take action.