I learned a lot from this book, but maybe not what I thought I was going to. The real purpose underlying the topic of this work is how we think about and treat the Cherokee Freedmen–a topic that was treated respectfully, yet is perhaps too narrow a basis for this type of conversation. I was looking for something that involved even those who can prove Cherokee descent, but have no family on the Dawes Rolls. I later learned that her book, Becoming Indian, explores this topic, which I will be reviewing in the future.
What I found most interesting in this book is that it was written by a non-citizen Cherokee and Choctaw descendant:
Over several years, my sense of identity began shifting as a result of my experiences at the university and in the field. My Choctaw identity moved front stage next to the Sicilian and Texan, while the German receded. The process was both personal and social. Other Native Americans on the university campus and in Oklahoma assigned me different degrees of Native American identity depending on the circumstances and the people involved.
At the extremes were moments when individuals argued either that I was a victim of internal colonialism, denying my Native heritage, or that I “hadn’t grown up on a ‘rez’ and hadn’t a clue.” The truth, I think, can be found somewhere in between. I believe that most of the time other Native American students viewed me as a white woman with some Native-American ancestry. In the last few years, I reached out to my extended family and learned far more about my Choctaw relatives and their life experiences. At the same time, I investigated whether or not I was eligible for tribal enrollment through my grandmother. I was surprised to find that the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma had no minimum blood quantum requirement and only asked for proof that my greatgrandmother had moved to Oklahoma and was listed on an earlier tribal roll. However, my grandmother had been born in Mississippi, the original homeland of the Choctaw people, and had never moved west. Moreover, even with proper records, I failed to meet the Mississippi Choctaw Nation’s minimum racial standard of one-half Choctaw blood or more. Had my grandmother moved to Oklahoma, I would have been in, but because she stayed in Mississippi where the racial definitions were stricter, I was out.
This frustrating experience is a common one for Native Americans whose identities are administered and verified through what are often rather haphazard paper trails leading to racially quantified ancestors. For instance, some Native Americans who speak indigenous languages and are phenotypically “Indian” are not federally recognized because they lack proper documentation. Usually, their ancestors resisted formal enrollment because they viewed it as a tool of political, cultural, and social assimilation. Many who witness this pervasive focus on documentation and genealogical descent are shocked at the degree to which culture is ignored in the enrollment process. Although culture is not a primary consideration when federal or tribal governments assign Indian identity, for most Native Americans culture is the litmus test of “Indianness.”
She explained the history of the Cherokee in a way I had not encountered before–through the context of slavery and racial “diversity”:
When gold was discovered on Cherokee land soon thereafter, Congress had the necessary incentive to quickly pass the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The Cherokees resisted this act, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court, where in two landmark decisions, Chief Justice John Marshall laid out the terms under which the independence of the Cherokee Nation would be constructed (Walker 1997: 115)…
In response to these legislative and administrative maneuvers, a group of wealthy, slaveholding Cherokees began to coalesce around the leadership of Major Ridge, a prominent Cherokee war hero. Convinced that the efforts of Chief John Ross and his political supporters (the National Party) to resist the president and the populace of Georgia would eventually prove futile, this relatively small group of Cherokees believed that their only hope for autonomy was to sign a treaty of removal. On December 29, 1835, Major Ridge and several hundred Cherokees later known as the Treaty Party, met at the Cherokee capital of New Echota, Georgia. They signed a treaty relinquishing their homeland for $5 million and agreed to move west of the Mississippi to lands already occupied by earlier Cherokee emigrants known as the Old Settlers. The Treaty Party left almost immediately, taking their slaves with them, and were thus spared the forced removal of 1838.
For the Cherokees who were left behind the pending crisis of removal exacerbated already existing class divisions that had come about from the development of plantation slavery. Slaveholding and nonslaveholding Cherokees were increasingly divided “not only in an economic sense but also in terms of values and world views” (Perdue 1979: 68). Culturally conservative Cherokees now associated slavery with the white southerners trying to force them from their homes and with those slaveholding Cherokees who had signed the fraudulent removal treaty at New Echota. While members of both the Treaty Party and the National Party held slaves, only the Treaty Party had adopted the values and lifestyle of white southern plantation owners enough to give up their traditional homeland (Perdue 1979: 68). Chief Ross and the National Party clung tenaciously to Cherokee values, waging battle after battle in the U.S. courts to protect the tribe’s communal landholdings and autonomy.14 In spite of Ross’s wealth and European ancestry, the majority of Cherokees supported him and believed that at his core he retained a “traditional” Cherokee worldview.15 But Ross was unable to unify the tribe—the lines of division had been drawn too deeply. Black slavery had created lasting boundaries of cultural and class difference between Cherokee tribal citizens.
Though Chief Ross collected the signatures of 15,665 Cherokees on a petition protesting the actions of the 500 Cherokees at New Echota, nothing could stop “the removal,” as this tragedy is euphemistically known to this day. At bayonet point, the Cherokees were forced from their homes and rounded up into stockades. In the winter of 1838, about 16,000 Cherokees began their deadly trek west on the “trail where they cried.” They lost at least a quarter of their population and in a wake of grief struggled to rebuild their lives in the unfamiliar country of Indian Territory. Removal was an act of greed undergirded by racism, “a rejection of all Indians as Indians, not simply a rejection of unassimilated Indians who would not accept the American life-style” (Horsman 1981: 192). This trauma of racial and national exclusion left a psychic wound and exacerbated the existing divisions among Cherokees that had evolved from the development of plantation slavery. Once in Indian Territory, growing social and political factionalism brought chaos and violence to the Cherokee Nation.
“I have signed my own death warrant,” said Major Ridge after signing the Treaty of New Echota (McLoughlin 1993: 15). Ridge was aware that the Cherokee Nation permitted capital punishment in only a handful of circumstances, one of which was for selling any portion of the national homeland without the permission of the tribe as a whole-an act of treason. When the rest of the tribe arrived in Indian Territory, clan representatives and other culturally conservative political leaders made the decision to execute several of the leaders of the Treaty Party. At the top of the list were Major Ridge, John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, and Stand Watie. All of these men were violently killed on the same day in the summer of 1839, most in front of their families, with the exception of Stand Watie, who either by a stroke of good fortune or because someone had warned him, was not home when the executioners arrived.
The killings caused widespread panic and ushered in one of the bloodiest eras in Cherokee history. Although the clan leaders had agreed that the executions would not invoke the Cherokee law of blood, the victims’ close kin and political allies still sought revenge (McLoughlin 1993:16)…
In the turbulent years immediately following the executions, the majority of Cherokees continued to support John Ross and to re-elect him as principal chief. Part of Ross’s popularity as a leader stemmed from the fact that he recognized the diversity of the Cherokee people and often sought political compromise. Holding the Cherokees national sovereignty in the highest regard, Ross helped re-establish their constitutional government in 1839 and held a national convention in the hopes that he could clear the air with regards to the murders (McLoughlin 1993: 18-19). But his efforts were of little use, and the violence and tension continued to mount.
… A few Cherokees owned large plantations that were cultivated by black slaves, but most were small-scale farmers and hunters. However, by 1846, a distinct group of approximately 300 families began to coalesce and came to constitute an elite social class of multiracial Cherokees (McLoughlin 1993: 77). The majority of these individuals, though far from all, were proslavery, English-speaking Christians who sometimes were known locally as “white Indians” (Wardell 1977: 122). In this particular context, the terms mixed-blood and white Indian became more socially salient among Cherokees. Of course, these categories of identity were social constructions that had only a loose correspondence with racial ancestry, since Cherokees with white ancestry could also be poor, non-Christian, or against black slavery. Nonetheless, during this period, the idiom of race began to shape the discourses of Cherokee social and political identity in distinct ways that help to explain its meanings among Cherokees today…
Cherokee slavery mirrored that of the white South in another revealing way, the efforts of black slaves to escape or rebel. With the social, political, and economic upheaval of removal all around them, Cherokee slaves saw their masters’ weakness in full relief and began to run away in increasing numbers, many trying to make it to the northern states or to Mexico. At least two small, armed slave rebellions occurred during this period, one in 1842 and another in 1846 (Perdue 1979: 8283). These uprisings instilled fear in wealthy and powerful Cherokees, who responded by enacting a series of harsh slave codes (see the accompanying list).19 With these new laws, Cherokee slavery could hardly be distinguished from the peculiar institution of white southerners.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Cherokee Nation was a multiracial entity, not simply because it had different types of citizens, some with white and black ancestry, but because it had long condoned the practice of black slavery. Some scholars and many contemporary Cherokees argue that Cherokee masters were more lenient to their black slaves in Indian Territory than were white southerners to theirs. One reason for this interpretation is that Cherokees did not indulge in mob violence, as southern whites often did. The Cherokee Nation has no record of mass lynching, and one historian has suggested that Cherokee slaves did not fear for their personal safety as much as their bonded counterparts in Alabama or Mississippi (Littlefield 1978: 68). Such generalizations, however, are often in conflict with individual cases. The leniency of these relationships often depended on the individuals involved. More significantly, any conclusion about Cherokee leniency toward black slaves must be viewed in a larger social and historical context. The fact remains that “the Cherokees held a greater number of slaves than any other tribe in Indian Territory” (Littlefield 1978: 8).
However, another reason I picked up this book was for information on the Dawes rolls and why they function they way they do–how and why they limit and exclude. I got a little of what I was looking for:
The racialization of property rights that occurred under the Dawes Act had a serious impact on Native American communities that went beyond land loss. Ethnohistorian Sarah Hill points out that “a nearly obsessive preoccupation with the biological fiction called “race’ had infected Indian policy” since the beginning (1997:160). As “federal agents asked and recorded the quantum of ‘Cherokee blood’ of each person, [they set] up a division that has persisted for more than a century. A more divisive and destructive policy for Native Americans can hardly be imagined” (1997: 160). These actions on the part of the U.S. government constituted a more subtle exercise of power, a type that Michel Foucault calls “disciplinary.” (Foucault 1979: 308). As Pauline Strong and Barrik Van Winkle assert, bureaucratic activities that “disciplined” Native Americans according to white standards “were probably of even greater importance than military action in reigning in Indian sovereignty and replacing it with dependency” (1993: 15). As a result, many tribes, having lost much of their land base and their communal system of land tenure, went into economic, social, and political decline in the first several decades of the twentieth century.
The Cherokee Nation faced these same difficulties and others. Not only did the Dawes Act pave the way for Oklahoma statehood, but it did so at the expense of the Cherokee Nation. In 1907 when Oklahoma became a state, Congress formally dissolved the Cherokee Nation as a governing body. Euroamerican ideologies that had helped give birth to Cherokee nationalism now worked to destroy it. The Dawes Act also helped cement the various racial ideologies from earlier in the century. By the turn of the century, these racial ideologies had been reproduced not only in the Dawes Act itself, but in various forms of blood legislation in the state structures of both the Cherokee Nation and the federal government. As we shall see in the next chapter, these ideologies continued to interact and racialize Cherokee national identity in contradictory ways throughout the twentieth century. When the Cherokee Nation finally began to reemerge in the 1940s after three decades of quiescence, the stage had already been set for it to reproduce these contradictions, once again, in its own state structure.
… Cynical manipulation was not the only force at work in the adoption of blood quantum. Blood quantum was widely embraced by nineteenth-century scientific thought as a rational measure of racial identity and racial “purity.” Thus, the racial logic behind this move lies at a much deeper hegemonic level. In fact, blood quantum could just as easily have been introduced by naively well-meaning bureaucrats and liberal supporters who wanted to help “deserving Indians” but had no effective way of identifying them except through the crude contours of genealogy….
“Cherokees who intermarried with Europeans centuries ago. How could they have known that the commingling of their blood would result in such bureaucratization, such a Euroamerican standard of measuring Indianness? Would they be disturbed to find that being Cherokee was no longer a simple question of community and clan belonging? How would they feel if they had to apply for a permit to be Cherokee, to prove that they had Cherokee blood? How could they have known that their mixed-blood children, born of love, violence, or necessity, would find themselves caught in a tangled web of race, law, culture, and nation?
During the course of my fieldwork, I saw the subtle repercussions of an obvious fact-Cherokee citizenship is based on blood, on the ability of individuals to prove that they are Cherokee in some measure. In this chapter, I explore how this came to be, how blood became central to Cherokee identity in the twentieth century, not just as a racial, social, and cultural metaphor but as a documented biological possession. This historical process has involved two competing notions of race: first, a Euroamerican sense of ethnonationalism linking blood, race, and nation, which was borrowed early on by Cherokees in their efforts to forge their own national identity; and second, another Euroamerican notion based on nineteenth-century science that racial identity was tied to blood quantum, which signified the nature of one’s racial ancestry and degree of race mixture. Over time, the interactions between these two competing ideologies of race gave rise to an overarching racial formation that came to be expressed in the blood legislation of both the Cherokee Nation and the U.S. federal government. Each used this blood legislation at different points in time for different political purposes—but usually with the same underlying motivations: either to control access to economic resources or to maintain racial purity as the basis of a national identity.”
Given this history, it is not surprising that blood legislation continues to determine and shape the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation and that Cherokee national citizenship is based on proof of blood belonging. Just as with most other Indian nations, to register as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation an individual must first have a certificate degree of Indian blood (CDIB) issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. This small white card, so critical to an individual’s legal and political recognition as a Cherokee tribal member, provides some “essential” information: the individual’s name and degree of Indian blood, in fractions according to tribe. For instance, a fairly typical CDIB in Oklahoma might describe someone with multitribal Indian and Euroamerican ancestry in the following manner: seven thirty-seconds Cherokee, two thirty-seconds Kiowa, and two thirty-seconds Choctaw. While the various tribal connections are stated with mathematical precision, the remaining non-Indian blood quantum is not provided.
Obtaining a CDIB is a complicated process that requires a journey down a bureaucratic paper trail. First, individuals must apply to the Cherokee Nation’s registration department, which processes applications for the BIA. Then they have to procure legal documents, usually in the form of state-certified vital statistics records, which establish them as lineal descendents of Cherokee ancestors. However, not just any Cherokee ancestors will do. They must be listed on the Cherokee Nation section of what is commonly referred to as the Dawes Rolls, the Final Rolls of Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. As mentioned in the previous chapter, the Dawes Rolls were authorized by the Indian Appropriations Act of 1893 that extended the General Allotment Act of 1887 to include the Five Tribes in Indian Territory. The rolls were compiled between 1899 and 1906 for the purpose of breaking up the communal landholdings of Indian nations.3 Today, their primary use is genealogical. If an individual can find a copy of the Dawes Rolls at a local library or federal repository, such as the National Archives, and his or her ancestor is listed with a roll number and a Cherokee blood degree, then he or she has the necessary information to apply for a CDIB. The Cherokee Nation will then calculate that person’s Cherokee blood…
Throughout the book, Sturm points out the complicated contradictions and injustices on understanding who is and who is not a citizen Cherokee, though never really talks about solutions–not that this book ever promised to do so and not that there are any. You leave the book feeling quite useless and hopeless for a solution, really.