In Cherokee freedmen case, two like-minded groups clash over tribal sovereignty

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: July 20, 2012
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WHEN worlds collide.

One politically connected, Democratic Party-leaning group is pitted against another in a landmark battle over race, heritage, tribal sovereignty and exclusivity.

This describes the decade-long Cherokee Nation's “freedmen” dispute that may be headed for resolution soon in a federal district court. Liberals will have a hard time deciding whom to favor in this tussle over the Cherokees' membership rolls.

On one side is a revered tribe that survived a catastrophic relocation to Oklahoma in the 19th century, a proud people enjoying a sovereignty that extends to hiring preferences that would be illegal for anyone else. On the other side are the descendants of slaves owned and later freed by Cherokees, blacks who were considered as tribal members until the tribe decided otherwise.

“We are at a fork in the road, and both paths lead to bad things,” said Clint Carroll, a Cherokee and professor of Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. Losing the freedman fight would be a blow to sovereignty, Carroll told The Wall Street Journal. Winning it would be a blow to racial harmony and the tribe's image.

Some liberals didn't have a hard time deciding which faction to back. The Obama administration and the Congressional Black Caucus, who would otherwise adore sovereignty, are openly opposed to a decision denying tribal membership to about 25,000 freedmen. That decision was ratified in a 2007 election by Cherokees and later upheld by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court.

Washington struck back with threats to withhold federal funds from the tribe. The Cherokee Nation went to federal court to pursue its case. The Obama administration went to court as well. At issue is whether the tribe can limit its membership to descendants of those listed on an old government census.


by The Oklahoman Editorial Board
The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Gary Pierson, President and CEO of The Oklahoma Publishing Company; Christopher P. Reen, president and publisher of The Oklahoman; Kelly Dyer Fry, editor and vice president of news; Christy Gaylord...
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