Fight over Cherokee identity spills into new Calif. culture clubs

By Gillian Flaccus
Riverside, California (AP) 9-07

Diane Ross-Neal grew up hearing about her Cherokee heritage, so when the tribe promoted clubs for the thousands of members living in California, it seemed natural for her to share her own story. She soon realized that not everyone wanted to hear it.

At meetings, she says, organizers tried to pry the microphone from her hands, called her a liar or refused to let her speak at all. The reason, Ross-Neal says, is simple: She is black. Ross-Neal, 62, is one of hundreds of people who call themselves Cherokee freedmen, descendants of slaves owned by the tribe before being freed. An 1866 treaty with the United States stated that all slaves and their descendants were tribal members.

Now, however, the Cherokees are trying to kick the Freedmen out – and the fledgling cultural clubs across California are shaping up as another battleground in a protracted fight.

“I went to all the meetings and I felt so unwelcome,” Ross-Neal said of the California clubs. “I kid you not, it was like, ‘What are you doing here? You’re black, you’re not Cherokee.’ It was so thick you could cut it with a knife.”

At least eight communities for Cherokees have sprung up this year in California. The state is home to about 20,000 Cherokees, the largest number outside the tribe’s 14-county homeland in Oklahoma. Similar clubs are planned in six more states from Oregon to Kansas by next summer.

Organizers say the groups are a way to reconnect far-flung Cherokees with their heritage, give them stronger ties to the tribal government and provide a forum for their concerns.

Some Cherokee freedmen, however, accuse tribal leadership of using the clubs to minimize the voice of black Cherokees at a time when the debate over their rights has spread into mainstream America. A California congresswoman recently introduced a bill that would punish the Cherokee Nation for banning freedmen and lawsuits seeking a similar recourse are pending in both tribal and federal courts.

The conflict between the descendants of Cherokee slaves and the tribal nation began in March, when more than three-quarters of the tribe voted to kick about 2,800 freedmen off tribal rolls.

Principal Chief Chad Smith said the vote by the 270,000-member tribe was not racist and targets only those slave descendants with no Indian blood. Tribal officials estimate that as many as 1,500 Freedmen can prove they have some Cherokee blood and will remain tribal citizens.

“It was the people’s decision,” he said. “I have a constitutional duty to uphold our laws and constitution.”

Still, the vote to ban the freedmen caught the attention of Rep. Diane Watson, a Los Angeles Democrat, who introduced legislation in June that would sever U.S. relations with the tribe and end their gaming rights. Watson, a black congresswoman who also claims Indian blood, estimates the Cherokees could lose $300 million in federal money under her proposal.

John Velie, an attorney for the freedmen, said that until the recent ouster, freedmen were more politically active in the tribe and voted in much higher numbers than their non-black counterparts. He sees the new communities for far-flung Cherokees as an effort to counter that influence and drum up new voters who will toe the tribe’s anti-freedmen line.

“They’re scared that if the freedmen come in and vote, a bunch of ‘welfare blacks’ will come in and take their benefits,” he said. “It’s just racism.”

Taylor Keen, a former tribal councilman and one of the few Cherokees to publicly endorse freedmen rights, said the California clubs are little more than propaganda machines designed to push an anti-freedmen message.

Club meetings feature tightly controlled agendas, Keen said, where freedmen are rarely allowed to speak, and sometimes feature anti-freedmen literature. That was especially true in the run-up to a June tribal election, when candidates visited the California clubs for a voter forum, he said.

“The message of Cherokee by blood is being spun,” he said. “It’s another forum for anti-freedmen rhetoric and I think anyone who’s been there wouldn’t deny it.”

Cherokees living outside Oklahoma may be more easily swayed by the tribe’s party line, said Marilyn Vann, president of Descendants of Freedman of the Five Civilized Tribes and a plaintiff in the federal litigation.

“They have very little knowledge and a lot of their knowledge has come from the tribal newspaper,” said Vann, who lives in Oklahoma City. “For people who are really not being affected, they may not necessarily want to work real hard to see if these things are true or not true.”

The debate has divided even black Cherokees, creating schisms between those who have Indian blood and those who don’t – or at least, can’t prove it.

At a recent meeting for California Cherokees at a park in Riverside, about a half-dozen black Cherokees shared a Cherokee blessing, potluck dinner and nature walk with several dozen other club members. The black attendees, however, were quick to point out that they had Cherokee blood – unlike the recently ousted freedmen like Ross-Neal who can’t prove it.

Lloyd Thompson, who is one-quarter Cherokee, said he supported the tribe’s vote to kick out the freedmen because those with no Indian blood were trying to use race to get benefits they don’t deserve.

“There are people who are dark-skinned, like mine, and they interbred with the Cherokee and they lived with the Cherokee. They are authentic,” he said. “These other people are interlopers. Cherokees are a proud people and we know who we are.”

Those who formed the California culture groups, however, say the accusations lodged by some freedmen are false and hurtful. They say members only want to reconnect with the tribe after being forced to downplay their heritage for generations.

“I feel bad that they’re feeling that way. That makes my heart hurt,” said Britt Porter, interim chairman of the Cherokee Community of the Inland Empire. “One thing we don’t do is discuss politics. This is political and that stays in its own arena.”

Julia Coates, a professor of Native American studies at the University of California, Davis helped start the Cherokee clubs. She said the outreach became a priority after the tribe voted four years ago to add council seats for members living outside Oklahoma.

“I don’t see that this is connected to the freedman issue,” said Coates, who was recently elected to one of the new council seats.

That doesn’t convince Ross-Neal, who is now trying to gain support to form a separate tribe for the ousted Cherokee freedmen.

“We’re invisible,” said Ross-Neal, who lives in Compton. “It’s not like they were treading the Trail of Tears by themselves. Our ancestors died on the trail too – but we were there as slaves.”

AP Writer Justin Juozapavicius in Tulsa, Okla., contributed to this story.