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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)

"A lot of Cherokees don't know who the freedmen are," Smith said. Did he, growing up? "No."

The Cherokee Nation expelled many descendants of slaves in 1983 by requiring them to show a degree of Indian blood through the Dawes rolls. A tribal court reinstated them in March 2006. That spurred today's special election, which received a go-ahead Feb. 21 when a federal judge in Washington denied the freedmen's request for an injunction to halt the balloting.

Seated around a kitchen table recently at a family home in Vinita, one of Oklahoma's first settlements founded in part by Cherokee freedmen, the Baldridges spoke with bitterness about the dispute.

"It should have been a nonissue," Roy Baldridge, 51, said of the controversy in the Cherokee Nation. Stacks of photocopied U.S. government tribal censuses, genealogies and family photos lay spread out on the table. A portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. hung in the next room.

"It makes me sad that a few have brought this out and we're in this situation," he said.

And the fight over heritage is moving beyond the Cherokee Nation. The other tribes that owned slaves, and black descendants in those tribes, are watching the vote.

In 2000, the Seminole Nation expelled freedmen but was compelled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and federal courts to take them back. The Creek Nation has battled its freedmen in court.

Over the winter, Choctaw and Chickasaw freedmen formed their own association.

At his home in Fort Coffee, a hamlet founded by Choctaw freedmen, Triplett said he is not trying to immerse himself in his Indian heritage. "Oh, no!" he said. "I'm black!"

But a few days later he stood at Fort Coffee's Choctaw cemetery, where because of renovation a chain-link fence separates the Indian and freedman sides of the graveyard. Triplett pointed out ancestors.

Leaving, he shouted a warning to the Choctaw side: "Guess who's coming to dinner!"

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