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.
Many of the Cherokees' slaves accompanied the tribe when it was expelled from its traditional lands in North Carolina and Georgia and forced to migrate in 1838 and 1839 to Indian Territory, in what is now Oklahoma. Thousands of Cherokees died during the trip, which became known as the "Trail of Tears." It is not known how many of their slaves also perished.
The tribe fought for the Confederacy. In defeat, it signed a federal treaty in 1866 committing that its slaves, who had been freed by tribal decree during the war, would be absorbed as citizens of the Cherokee Nation.
By the late 1880s, Washington started opening up tribal lands in Oklahoma to white settlers, breaking previous pledges to the tribes. As a step toward ending tribal ownership of Indian Territory, Congress initiated a new census of the "Five Civilized Tribes" -- a census known as the Dawes Commission. It is that head count that the Cherokee Nation would use to determine the eligibility of freedmen.
Past censuses of the tribes had noted both the Indian and the African ancestry of freedmen, counting those of mixed heritage as Native Americans. The Dawes Commission took a different approach.
Setting up tents in fields and at crossroads, the census takers eyeballed and interviewed those who came before them, separating them into different categories. If someone seemed to be Indian or white with Indian blood, the commission listed that person as whole or part Indian, historians say. People who the officials thought looked black were listed as freedmen, and no Indian lineage was noted, according to freedmen and historians.
"In cases of mixed freedmen and Indian parents," Kent Carter wrote in his book "The Dawes Commission," applicants were "not given credit for having any Indian blood."
Baldridge's ancestors are recorded as freedmen in the Dawes rolls. Roy Baldridge, J.D.'s son, said that for the Dawes Commission, "if you had a drop of black blood, you were black."
"That's false," said Smith, the Cherokee chief. "I think there was not a fixed policy that if you were dark, you were put on the freedmen roll."
Still, whether people were listed as Indians or freedmen, they were, under the 1866 treaty, considered citizens of the Cherokee Nation. Today's vote could revoke that designation for freedmen.
The census recorded about 20,000 freedmen for the five tribes, said Angela Y. Walton-Raji, a genealogist whose research has been seminal for freedmen tracing their roots.
Descendants of those freed tribal slaves would number in the hundreds of thousands today, Walton-Raji said.
But segregation and the civil rights movement separated native members of the tribes from freedmen. Today, no more than a few thousand descendants of the slaves are officially members of the five tribes, leaving their prospects of defeating the Cherokee referendum slim. By late last month, about 2,800 had re-registered in time to vote.
"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!"