I was checking blogs of some of my friends tonight, and ran across a disturbing bit of news on Robert Glaub’s blog. In short, today the tribal government of the Cherokee Nation is reported to have expelled from membership the descendants of slaves owned by tribe members at the time of the Trail of Tears.
I’ve always thought that pride in one’s ancestry was a bit silly: none of us choose our ancestors, after all, and pride in something that happened to you without your choice or participation seems pointless. I’ve always found that part of my own ancestry that is traced, not to Europe but to America itself, interesting. However, although my ancestors are on the rolls of the Dawes Commission and I therefore qualify, I never applied for membership in the Cherokee Nation because despite my ancestry, I don’t consider myself Cherokee. I don’t speak the language and was not brought up with any reference to the culture of these ancestors. Any attempt to assert membership after the fact seemed to me to be a grab for benefits for which I had not paid the price.
Today, however, I almost wish I had joined all those years ago, because I would then resign from the tribe. :/ The Cherokee Freedmen are the descendants of Africans who were forcibly brought to the United States as slaves. After surviving a sea journey that killed about half the people that took it, they were purchased by Cherokee plantation owners in exactly the same way that European-American plantation owners purchased slaves. When the Cherokee plantation owners were dispossessed and forced to relocate west of the Mississippi river to what is now the U.S. State of Oklahoma, their slaves went with them. The Trail of Tears resulted in the deaths of about 1/3 of the people who took part; the slaves died along with everyone else.
The descendants of these African slaves have since then lived as Cherokees — for generations. Many speak the Cherokee language (as I do not except for a few words), and even more have suffered the same problems as second class citizens in America for much of the past 150 years as the biological descendants of the original Cherokee people. In every respect but pure biology, they ARE Cherokee. If you want to know more about this group, Wikipedia has an article.
I would not join the Cherokee Nation because I felt that I had not paid the price: the Cherokee Freedmen did pay the price, and have considered themselves Cherokee for generations. As best I can tell, they are being thrown out of the tribe because of greed, not racism — other members of the Cherokee Nation apparently do not want to share money and other benefits of tribal membership with any larger a group than they must.
But either way, this is shameful. And if I were Cherokee and a member of the Cherokee Nation, today I would be ashamed.