Ex-Cherokee chief says tribe allowing return of racism

Tulsa, Oklahoma (AP) 10-07

A former chief of the Cherokee Nation has said efforts made by the tribe to take away the citizenship of the descendants of the tribe’s former slaves have revived racism.

Former Chief Joe Byrd did not refer to the current chief, Chad Smith, by name, but Byrd said Smith should have stopped the efforts to disenfranchise the descendants of those known as “Freedmen.” Byrd, at times speaking in the Cherokee language, made his comments during a forum on the issue sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., who introduced legislation in June that would sever U.S. relations with the tribe and end their gaming rights, hosted the event.

Smith told the Tulsa World’s Washington bureau that Byrd’s allegations are “hollow and desperate” and that Byrd made them to “salvage his devastated political aspirations.”

“Basically, he just called our own people racists, and it is fundamentally false,” Smith said.

Smith said that Byrd voted 15 years ago for a bill that would have required Cherokee ancestry for tribal membership. Byrd said he did not recall that issue ever being considered by the tribal council during his tenure.

“That’s all he has to do is to do the right thing, and we can go home and leave the Freedmen as they are, part of the Cherokee nation,” Byrd said, referring to Smith during the forum.

“A 1866 treaty guarantees full citizenship and rights. Now for some reason in this time, where I thought that type of treatment was gone, we are resurfacing racism here.”

Byrd later was asked if he had called Smith a racist.

“I am just saying let us not make this what it is,” Byrd said. “We can’t jeopardize 560 tribes because we want to move some people out of the tribe. That’s the big issue right now. We cannot bring the other tribes into this.”

Byrd now is a senior adviser to a consulting group run by former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma. Smith said one of the Watts Consulting Group’s clients is the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.

“So the strategy is a very simple one,” Smith said. “He wants to harm or destroy the Cherokee Nation so his client can pick up the pieces.”

Smith said he has twice defeated Byrd in tribal elections.

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

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

Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com