, Muskogee, OK


March 11, 2007

Freedmen vote may haunt Cherokees in the future

OKLAHOMA CITY – For years, those of us in Oklahoma government have stood with Native American tribes to protect their sovereignty under treaties with the federal government.

But given Cherokee Nation members’ recent decision to ignore provisions of their own treaty, I wonder how long the rest of us can be expected to defend it.

This month, members of the Cherokee Nation voted overwhelmingly to strip the descendents of former slaves of their place on tribal rolls. The freedmen have been citizens of the Cherokee Nation for more than 140 years thanks to the terms of a treaty signed by the Cherokee Nation in 1866 that admitted former slaves as tribal members.

Now, with one vote, the tribe has essentially said, “Treaties be damned.” Given the history of Native American dealings with the federal government, that stance is unbelievable.

I am very disturbed by the Cherokee Nation vote to oust the freedmen from tribal rolls. I’m disappointed the vote took place at all. We are talking about a very minute percentage of tribal members at a time when the Cherokee Nation is rolling in cash from its casinos and other businesses. Heck, the Cherokee Nation is one of Oklahoma's biggest employers with more than 6,000 people on the payroll.

Yet the tribe still voted to yank people off the rolls, not because of hardship, but … well, I don’t think anyone has a good explanation for their decision.

Given the Cherokee Nation’s actions, what does a treaty mean in 2007? Do those of us in state and federal government now have the ability to take a vote and gut other provisions of tribal treaties, or will we continue to support them?

Personally, I believe we should preserve the treaties between our federal government and the tribes and respect tribal sovereignty. But that stance is a hard sell when tribes don’t feel obligated to keep their word.

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