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How Whites Shape Black-Indian Relations

Today the Cherokee nation will vote on whether the descendants of the tribe's former black slaves ("freedmen") can remain members of the tribe. [UPDATE: The freedmen got voted out.] Being neither Cherokee nor black, I'll reserve comment for now on whether they should vote yes or no, though in the interests of full disclosure I should admit to a strong gut reaction in favor of including the freedmen. (I have a post brewing in the back of my mind about when and how a member of a dominant group is ethically and politically justified in accusing an oppressed group of oppressing a third group, since it's not as simple as either "injustice is injustice wherever you see it" or "worry about the log in your own eye.")

What I found interesting about the Washington Post article on the vote was the way that it showed how the stage for the present situation was set in significant part by the actions of white people and their governments. And this stage-setting happened in complex ways that can't be reduced to seeing the wrong outcome of today's vote as a simple transferrence of white racism.

It starts, of course, with the fact that the Cherokees got the institution of black slavery, as well as the slaves themselves, from their white neighbors. I would not be surprised to find that the adoption of slaves was not just a "hey, that sounds like a good idea" sort of cultural/technological transfer, but also a response to the necessity of improving the tribe's economic productivity and social status in the face of white encroachment on their land.

The initial adoption of the freedmen into the tribe came at the end of the Civil War, when the Union imposed a treaty on the Cherokee and other slave-owning tribes who had fought with the Confederacy. So the tribe's fate was tied up in the outcome of a war driven mostly by two white factions' dispute over how to handle black-white relations.

Then came the Dawes Commission, an agent of the white-dominated federal government which made official pronouncements about who was Indian enough to be a Cherokee or black enough to be a freedman. These pronouncements will be an important part of determining how to apply the outcome of today's vote to individual people who lay claim to tribal membership.

The article also mentions the effects of segregation, which broke the bonds of community between Cherokees and freedmen. This weakened the actual shared entanglement of lives and experiences that would have formed both a motivation and a justification for keeping the freedmen in the tribe.

But while it can easily detail the racial sins of our predecessors even up to the Jim Crow era, the Post (like most mainstream outlets) pulls its punches when it comes to how the issue is shaped by contemporary racial dynamics. The situation would surely be different if the Cherokee and freedmen weren't both getting the short end of the stick from white-dominated society. A central issue motivating the present vote is that tribal membership means not just acceptance into a community and participation in its affairs, but also access to resources. In particular, the Cherokee nation gets a fixed sum of money from the federal government. This arrangement -- as opposed to full self-sufficient sovereignty, payments scaled to the population of the tribe, or the lack of any compensation, as is the case for non-tribe-member blacks, is obviously the product of continuing racial politics between those two groups and whites. And of course whites have been the key purveyors of the stereotypes of the rich Indians and the welfare-grubbing blacks, which doubtless motivate some Cherokees who vote "no" and some blacks who are just now trying to sign up for tribal membership.

All of this is not to deny the historical and present agency of either the Cherokees or the freedmen, or to excuse anyone's actions as being simply an effect of white racism. Indeed, what makes this story an interesting and illuminating case is the way the perpetration or resolution of one injustice shapes the terrain on which the subsequent struggle will be fought.


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