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Cherokee Past and Future Collide

AP - Adam Geller Feb 12, 2007

In fight over identity, Cherokee past and future collide

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) - When Lucy Allen sets out to tell her family's story, she first finds an empty room with plenty of open table space.

She arrives wheeling two big black suitcases, each stuffed with enough supporting evidence to do Perry Mason proud.

"This is my father," she begins, and directs long, thin fingers to a vintage oval-framed photograph swaddled in a towel.

A long time ago, the man in the picture told his little girl she was born of Indians _ proud people, descended from a regal line.

The girl loved those stories. But it wasn't until she had children of her own, that Allen realized the tales might have dimensions she'd never considered.

It was just as her parents told her. Yes, she was black. But there was Cherokee in her veins, too.

There was a catch, though.

She could call herself an Indian. But Allen's "proof" could just as easily be cited to show her people were not real Cherokees, but a human burden a defeated tribe had been forced to shoulder.

A century past, Allen's ancestors had secured what they thought was a permanent place in the tribe. Now, though, it was clear the only way she could ever be acknowledged as Cherokee would be to take on the very Cherokees who refused to count her as one of their own.

This begins as one woman's story, but it is much more. It is the story of identity. Who are we? Who decides who we are?

Each September, a crowd gathers in Tahlequah to celebrate the identity of the nation's largest Indian tribe _ while acknowledging the brutal history of efforts to extinguish it.

"We stand here today on the shoulders of our ancestors, who endured the Trail of Tears and brought us to this place we call home," a speaker told the crowd last fall.

And yet while Cherokees are proud of their journey, there is one chapter most aren't taught.

Long ago, as Cherokees struggled to remain independent of a white government, they were masters of black slaves.

After the tribe backed the losing side in the Civil War, the government demanded Cherokees free slaves and make them citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

The people, dubbed freedmen, embraced citizenship. They voted in tribal elections, ran for office, started businesses and became teachers. What's difficult to know is how much the lives of Cherokees and blacks intertwined before Jim Crow laws enforced separation.

In the last 20 years, modern-day freedmen have tried to reclaim citizenship. The resulting conflict provokes charges and countercharges of racism, greed and dirty politics.

"Do you want non-Indians ... using your Health Care Dollars?" warned an e-mail circulated last summer by backers of a tribal vote on citizenship. "... getting your Cherokee Nation scholarship dollars? ... making your Housing wait list longer?... being made Indians?"

Now, the vote on citizenship is set _ for March 3.

Cherokees have reason to be suspicious. Thanks to casinos, Cherokees' power to generate wealth and provide benefits is increasing. Meanwhile, numerous self-described lost Cherokees have popped up, some claiming a right to recognition.

But Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, says the conflict is not about politics or race.

"It's just a fundamental right of sovereignty ... to not only determine your own future, but to determine your own identity," he says.

After 20 years spent raising a family and following her husband in his Army career, Lucy Allen discovered the blessing of time. She spent hours in historical archives, prospecting for clues to back up her family's oft-told mythology.

Allen, now 74, quickly found her ancestors on Cherokee citizenship rolls from the early 1900s. The lists were compiled by the Dawes Commission _ appointed by Congress _ which drew up two rolls. One listed Cherokees by blood. The other, where Allen's ancestors were listed, was a roll of blacks, regardless of whether they had Indian blood.

Then, in the early 1990s, papers from the National Archives arrived in Allen's Tulsa mailbox, offering a window back to a long forgotten afternoon.

On that Thursday in 1901, a black farmer named William Martin _ Allen's great grandfather _ headed for tents pitched by the Dawes Commission outside his hometown.

"How old would you be?" a white official asked Martin.

"Something over 40, I judge," Martin replied.

"What is your father's name?"

"Joe Martin," said William Martin, whose mother, a freed slave woman, was with him.

... "Was Joe Martin an Indian and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation?" the questioner asked Martin's mother.

"Yes sir."

The aged transcript, Allen says, linked her to Capt. Joseph L. Martin, Cherokee lord of a legendary 100,000-acre ranch. He owned 103 black slaves. And one, it seemed, had born him a son _ Allen's great grandfather.

But since the early 1980s, her request for a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood _ issued only to those who can prove a link to someone on the comission's "by blood" rolls _ has been rejected eight times, Allen says.

Rejection stings, she says, and others agree.

Ruth Adair Nash says genealogical sleuthing makes clear she's descended from Cherokees. Her determination to have tribal benefits is precisely because the Cherokee Nation has continually denied them, she says.

"It's because we're black," Nash says, "And when you're black _ get back!"

Johnny Toomer, a forklift driver in Muskogee, sees it a little differently, a view framed by working alongside Cherokees.

"Johnny," they say, "you can see the Indian in you!"

"Well," Toomer answers, "seeing it and proving it is quite a different thing."

In 2003, Allen joined a meeting of freedmen, where a man named David Cornsilk rose to speak.

Cornsilk is Cherokee by blood. But as an unpaid "lay advocate," he's poured himself into battling for freedmen descendants.

When Allen approached, Cornsilk had recently lost a citizenship case in the Cherokee Nation's top court, the latest in a series of tribal court setbacks for freedmen.

Still, when "Lucy walked up to me and said, `What can I do?'," Cornsilk recalls, "I said, well, let's sue them."

Lucy Allen v. Cherokee Nation Tribal Council, asked the court to strike down a law making citizenship contingent on proof of Cherokee blood.

"We as a people must look back to where we have been to know where we are today," Cornsilk argued.

But tribal lawyers argued that Cherokees had already made clear freedmen should not be counted among them.

"It's not unreasonable to require someone to be Cherokee to be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation," Richard Osburn, an attorney for the tribe, told the court.

Seven months later, a divided court issued its ruling.

"The Cherokee Nation is much more than just a group of families with a common ancestry," Justice Stacy Leeds wrote for the 2-1 majority, last March.

Allen, celebrating the answer she'd been waiting for, drove with her sons to Tahlequah to register as citizens.

But the court's decision alarmed others.

"It really shook me up," says John Ketcher, a respected former deputy chief. "We're not just going to sit here and twiddle our thumbs and let it happen."

To Ketcher and others, the freedmen's quest for citizenship looks like a cash-grab _ for tribal health care benefits, scholarships and other perks _ by people who have little true interest in the Cherokees.

"I think they want some of the goodies that are coming our way," he says.

Tribal officials reject criticism that the controversy stems from racism.

Cherokees are one of the most racially tolerant Indian tribes, says Mike Miller, a spokesmen for the tribe.

After the ruling, critics collected more than 3,000 signatures demanding that Cherokee voters be allowed to decide. Smith, the chief, has called a vote.

Conventional wisdom is that, even with more than 1,500 new freedmen voters registered, they will be denied citizenship again.

But the issue's complexity is evident in talk among members of the Victory Cherokee Organization, a community group in Collinsville.

If freedmen are barred from citizenship, what's to say that people won't next try to bar those with limited Cherokee blood, Jewel Hendrix wonders. Her sister, Mary Burr, agrees.

"I feel like you are (Cherokee)," Burr says, "because you feel it in your heart."

So what makes a Cherokee?

Is it blood?

While some freedmen descendants have Indian blood, the majority probably don't, says Daniel Littlefield Jr. of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and author of a book, "The Cherokee Freedmen."

But, he says, blood should not matter.

Cherokees continued adopting blacks as citizens well after a treaty required it, making it hard to argue they were unwanted, he says. Once free to participate, there is ample evidence that black freedmen did just that.

Is being Cherokee about sharing a culture?

Long before the Civil War, Cherokee masters and black slaves crafted relationships that confounded stereotypes, says Tia Miles, author of "Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery."

She says: "Yes, there was a line between who was enslaved and who was free. And yet, Cherokee people were much more willing to bend that line than white slaveholders were in the South, and to cross that line."

The Cherokee Nation has rebuilt itself by redefining itself.

"We basically have changed from a nation of territory to a nation of people," says Smith, the chief.

Now the Nation will decide which people belong.

But freedmen descendants say history has already made that decision and they will accept no other.

If Cherokees reject her, Allen says she'll go back in court.

"I'm not quitting. I'm still in for the fight," she says.

"We might not ever see anything. But we're looking out for our children now _ and they wouldn't know where to begin."

I am not God and therefore cannot "save" anyone. The path one walks is between the individual and the creator; not to be judged me.

Being accountable is not allowing guilt and condemnation, it's understanding you made the choice, and not blaming others for your bad choices.