Cherokee Nation To Vote on Expelling Slaves' Descendants

J.D. Baldridge, whose ancestors include Cherokees and their former slaves, may lose tribal membership.
J.D. Baldridge, whose ancestors include Cherokees and their former slaves, may lose tribal membership. (By Ellen Knickmeyer -- The Washington Post)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 3, 2007

VINITA, Okla. -- J.D. Baldridge, 73, has official government documents showing him to be a descendant of a full-blood Cherokee. He has memories of a youth spent among Cherokee neighbors and kin, at tribal stomp dances and hog fries. He holds on to a fair amount of Cherokee vocabulary. " Salali," Baldridge says, his face creasing into a smile at the word. "Squirrel stew. Oh, that was good."

What Baldridge, a retired Oklahoma county sheriff, also has is at least one black ancestor, a former slave of a Cherokee family. That could get Baldridge cast out of the tribe, along with thousands of others.

The 250,000-member Cherokee Nation will vote in a special election today whether to override a 141-year-old treaty and change the tribal constitution to bar "freedmen," the descendants of former tribal slaves, from being members of the sovereign nation.

"It's a basic, inherent right to determine our own citizenry. We paid very dearly for those rights," Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith said in an interview last month in Oklahoma City.

But the Cherokee freedmen see the vote as less about self-determination than about discrimination and historical blinders. They see in the referendum hints of racism and a desire by some Cherokees to deny the tribe's slave-owning past.

"They know these people exist. And they're trying to push them aside, as though they were never with them," said Andra Shelton, one of Baldridge's family members. Shelton, 59, can recall her mother gossiping in fluent Cherokee when Cherokee friends and relatives visited.

People on both sides of the issue say the fight is also about tribal politics -- the freedmen at times have been at odds with the tribal leadership -- and about money.

Advocates of expelling the freedmen call it a matter of safeguarding tribal resources, which include a $350 million annual budget from federal and tribal revenue, and Cherokees' share of a gambling industry that, for U.S. tribes overall, takes in $22 billion a year. The grass-roots campaign for expulsion has given heavy play to warnings that keeping freedmen in the Cherokee Nation could encourage thousands more to sign up for a slice of the tribal pie.

"Don't get taken advantage of by these people. They will suck you dry," Darren Buzzard, an advocate of expelling the freedmen, wrote last summer in a widely circulated e-mail denounced by freedmen. "Don't let black freedmen back you into a corner. PROTECT CHEROKEE CULTURE FOR OUR CHILDREN. FOR OUR DAUGHTER[S] . . . FIGHT AGAINST THE INFILTRATION."

The issue is a remnant of the "peculiar institution" of Southern slavery and a discordant note set against the ringing statements of racial solidarity often voiced by people of color.

"It's oppressed people that's oppressing people," said Verdie Triplett, 53, an outspoken freedman of the Choctaw tribe, which, like the Cherokee, once owned black slaves.

Cherokees, along with Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles, were long known as the "Five Civilized Tribes" because they adopted many of the ways of their white neighbors in the South, including the holding of black slaves.

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