Voice of America: Cherokees to vote on Freedmen
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
"Next month, members of the Cherokee Nation will vote on whether to amend the tribal constitution to make Indian blood a requirement for citizenship. American Indian tribes are considered sovereign nations within the United States, and their citizens are entitled to tribal benefits, including subsidized housing and health care.
At issue in the March 3 vote is the status of thousands of descendants of African slaves once owned by tribal members. The people known as Cherokee freedmen say a 140-year-old treaty protects their citizenship in the Cherokee Nation. The story raises questions about Native American identity, race and justice.
The Cherokee tribe has always been one of the largest in the United States. Two centuries ago it was also once one of the wealthiest. Some of its members held more than 100 slaves on plantations in the south. In recent times, though, many Cherokee have lived in deep poverty. That situation is gradually improving, with the success of tribal casinos. Profits from these gambling operations are funding modern health clinics, like one rising from the countryside near Muskogee, Oklahoma.
With the Cherokee's financial picture brightening somewhat and a tribal ruling in their favor, freedmen such as Johnny Toomer, a forklift operator in Muskogee, have reasserted their claim to membership. Toomer says he hasn't been welcomed with open arms. "All I want to be done is done fairly and right. My ancestors received benefits and was done fairly. I want to be done fairly.""