What is a Cherokee? (updated 12 September)

Is nationality the fruit of a family tree?

The Cherokee have voted to exclude those who are not on the 1906 Dawes Roll from their tribe. Yahoo News emphasizes the fact that the some descendants of slaves will lose their Cherokee “citizenship.”

It is said that two thousand or so people, who were once considered members of the Cherokee tribe, will lose the right to vote in elections and to medical benefits.  However, tribal websites emphasize that the media have got it wrong.  (And so this post is being corrected to reflect new data.)

Recently adopted tribe members, of any color, may be expelled from the tribe.  Anyone who can prove they have an ancestor on the 1907 Dawes roll, whatever they look like or whatever their heritage, will remain a Cherokee.

The 1500 descendents of slaves who can find ancestors on the Dawes roll will remain Cherokee.

In fact, says the meet the Cherokee website, those who are being “expelled” from the tribe are among those who were granted Cherokee citizenship under a 2006 lower Cherokee court ruling.  This court ruling did in fact pertain to descendents of freedmen, and some white people who married into the tribe.

Some of those affected claim descent from slaves of individual Cherokee, and they claim they have the rights of citizenship under an 1866 treaty with the federal government.   It is said that the Dawes rolls were unfair because some freedmen, including their ancestors, were excluded.

The Cherokees are best known for three things

Image of Sequoya spoking a pipe and holding his famous syllabary
Sequoya, the Cherokee Cadmus, with his alphabet in his hands
  1. Sequoya, an illiterate genius who invented a written language (the Cherokee syllabary), said to be related to at least three American Presidents.
  2. The “Trail of Tears”, an infamous forced march, some say genocide, which forced the Cherokee off their land after greedy settlers eyed their resources.
  3. Being one of the biggest American Indian tribes that still exists in the United States and the largest in Oklahoma, with population of nearly a third of a million.

The Cherokees have made many treaties with the United States government, and usually these have been broken by the men in Washington.  The Trail of Tears is the most notorious example, but after the American Civil War, a new treaty was imposed on the Cherokee.

In 1831, it was decided that the Cherokee Nation was not a foreign nation, and somehow this meant that the US Supreme Court had no jurisdiction. No one would hear their plea. As they, and four others of the “civilized tribes” were forced to move from their homes, thousands of Cherokee died from disease, exposure, and starvation.

On the Cherokee Nation Facts website, it is said that 70 percent of Cherokee men served with the Union army during the Civil War.  The Republic points out, however, that a number of Cherokees fought for the Confederacy.

Whatever the statistics were, the Cherokee fought and died on both sides.  Historians estimate that one third of the entire nation, not just fighting men, perished in the war.

The Union is said to have been hard on the Cherokee, accusing them of fighting for the Confederacy.  After the war, this association with the Confederacy was used as an excuse to take more land from the Cherokee.

When slavery was legal in the United States, some individual Cherokees did hold slaves, although the majority did not.  According to Olive Anderson, who claims to be one of the descendants of these slaves, they were among those who went through the forced march. “We were born into this. Our people were on the Trail of Tears, too.”

This posed a problem when the slaves were freed throughout the United States.

Accusing the Cherokee of siding with the confederacy, the United States modified its treaty with the Cherokees in 1866.  This new treaty said that the freed slaves of Cherokees “shall have all the rights of native Cherokees.”  It also took away a lot of Cherokee land.

Now, there is a debate.  According to a new amendment, which has been brought up to the Cherokee Supreme Court, you’re only a Cherokee if you can prove you had a Cherokee ancestor.  Those ancestors had to be in an old census known as the 1907 Dawes Roll.  By then, the Cherokee nation was diverse and had adopted people from all heritage into their tribe.

However, there appear to be other people who have become Cherokee by association through a court ruling, who weren’t on that Dawes Roll.

The meet the Cherokee website notes that there are thousands of Cherokees, descended from slaves, who retain their citizenship, as their ancestors were on the Dawes Roll.

Those who are excluded from the Cherokee Nation will be excluded from voting in future elections.  Some fear that they may also be excluded from receiving welfare related benefits from the Nation and related citizenship rights.

It has been widely reported that the US department of Housing and Urban Development decided last month to withhold $33 Million from the tribe.  This decision has been linked to the Cherokee court ruling, but it has preceded it.  However, no evidence can be found on the HUD website to support these claims.

It is not clear yet how the Federal Government will react to the Cherokee Supreme Court’s decision.

Perhaps unrelated, but an odd coincidence, some images from the Library of Congress website have been frozen. Users are unable, for example, to download the famous image of Sequoya and his Cherokee syllabary.