Cherokee Freedmen Ready For Court Battle

Sunday, March 4th 2007, 9:05 pm
By: News On 6

A day after being voted out of the Cherokee Nation, descendants of Cherokee slaves say racism may have played a part in the special election that revoked their membership. A tribal council ruled last year that a 140-year-old treaty guaranteed the Cherokee Freedmen's tribal rights, but Saturday’s election overturned that ruling. The News on 6’s Chris Wright reports the Freedmen believe it's racism, and the Cherokees say it's simply a matter of blood.

"It's a sad time when people can do this based upon race, solely based upon race," Freedmen descendant Faith Russell said.

"So it's not a question of race, it never has been," said Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith.

Smith says while Saturday’s vote had nothing to do with racism, it had everything to do with blood. A vast majority of voters, 77-percent, elected to revoke the Freedmen's tribal membership. So to qualify as a Cherokee everyone must now be a direct Indian descendant.

"If you want to be a member of this Indian tribe, you should have some Indian blood," Smith said.

But Freedmen Faith Russell says that is not fair. An 1866 treaty guaranteed all freed Cherokee slaves and their descendants full tribal rights. She contends the election violates that treaty, and says the Freedmen will contest it.

"Be assured, as I speak, we are preparing for a legal battle, and we are not intimidated in the least," she said.

The Freedmen have sparked controversy since a tribal court re-admitted them in March of 2006, making them eligible for tax breaks, health care and other benefits. There has been some speculation that the Freedmen pushed for tribal membership simply to get their hands on casino profits. The Freedmen though say that is simply not true.

"This is a complete fallacy, I have not gotten anything from that tribe, nor have I asked for anything, most of the Freedmen I know have not asked for any monetary benefits," Russell said.

None of the 2,000 Freedmen will receive any more benefits. Still, Chief Smith says their ousting has nothing to do with racism, but everything to do with Cherokee heritage. Smith says this is the third time in the past 30 years the Cherokees have voted to clarify membership, it is the right of the Cherokee Nation to do so, and the special election did not violate that 1866 treaty.