TULSA, Okla. – One of the nation's largest American Indian tribes has sent letters to about 2,800 descendants of slaves once owned by its members, revoking their citizenship and cutting their medical care, food stipends, low-income homeowners' assistance and other services.
The Cherokee Nation acted this week after its Supreme Court upheld the results of a 2007 special vote to amend the Cherokee constitution and remove the slaves' descendants and other non-Indians from tribal rolls. The 300,000-member tribe is the biggest in Oklahoma, although many of its members live elsewhere.
Olive Anderson, 70, of Kansas City, Mo., called the letter she received "a slap in the face."
"It tears me up to think they can attack my ancestors," Anderson said.
The tribe never owned black slaves, but some individual members did. They were freed after the Civil War, in which the tribe allied with the Confederacy. An 1866 treaty between the tribe and the federal government gave the freedmen and their descendants "all the rights of native Cherokees."
But more than 76 percent of Cherokee voters approved the amendment stripping the descendants of their citizenship. Tribal leaders who backed the amendment, including then-Principal Chief Chad Smith, said the vote was about the fundamental right of every government to determine its citizens, not about racial exclusion.
The freedmen's descendants disagree.
"It's a red man, black man issue just like it's a white man, black man issue," said Raymond Nash, 64, of Nowata. "It's embarrassing, really. It should have been over a long time ago."
Along with losing services, Nash and other descendants of freedmen won't be able to vote in the hotly contested Sept. 24 election for principal chief that pits Smith against longtime tribal councilman Bill John Baker. The election is being held after the tribe's Supreme Court tossed out the results of a June election, saying it could not determine with a mathematical certainty who won. The results had flip-flopped between the two during weeks of counts and recounts. Baker had twice been declared winner, but so had Smith.
"This definitely is a setback for our freedmen people because we were all eager to vote in the upcoming election," said Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. "The attitude is more like, 'We can't put them in chains, so we'll do anything we can to take away their rights.' It's a matter of racism and politics."
Smith has supported the results of the 2007 voter-approved amendment.
"I've consistently supported the Cherokee Nation's right to determine their own national identity," he said Friday. "Cherokees say this: We don't care what you look like, as long as you've got Cherokee blood. It's about identity and self-governance."
Baker hasn't explicitly said he supports the amendment and the expulsion of the freedmen, but he issued a statement saying, "I respect the decision of the Cherokee people and believe fully in our right to self-govern."
After Cherokee Supreme Court upheld the 2007 vote on Aug. 22, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development temporarily froze $33 million in funds while it studies the issue. Federal lawmakers who believe the amendment violated the freedmen's civil rights had lobbied federal agencies to cut funding to the tribe.
Joe Crittenden, who is serving as acting principal chief until the new election is held, said the tribe, which has a $600 million budget, has enough money to carry it for "a few months" without cutting HUD-related services or jobs.
Crittenden said Cherokee leaders have been having weekly conversations with the local and regional HUD offices.
"We are confident that future federal funding will continue once the issues are resolved," he said.
HUD referred questions to its local office, which did not respond to messages left by The Associated Press.