Day By Day

Saturday, October 08, 2005


I just love anything that complicates or undermines our silly system of assigning people into racial and ethnic groups. Intermarriage scrambles identities and normally this doesn't matter, but when there are special privileges awarded to racial or ethnic group membership, conflicts emerge and the gloves come off. A particularly nasty fight is emerging with regard to blacks who claim membership in Indian nations.

Brendan Koerner, writing in Wired, relates:
Once paragons of racial inclusion and assimilation, the Native American sovereign nations have done an about-face and systematically pushed out people of African descent.
Gee, why would they do something like that? Could money be involved?

These are boom times for the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma - the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole - due in no small part to the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that allowed the tribes to construct their own casinos. The Chickasaw's net assets have more than doubled to $315 million in the two years since it opened the mammoth WinStar Casinos complex in Thackerville. The corporate arm of the Cherokee Nation, Cherokee Nation Enterprises, is on track to make nearly $70 million this year thanks to a new casino in Catoosa. Then there's the government reparations fund. In 1990, the Seminoles received a $56 million settlement as compensation for the seizure of the tribe's ancestral lands in Florida almost 200 years ago.

The casino profits and make-good money have increased the standard of living for the recognized members of the tribes who make their homes in some of the poorest areas in the US. Cherokee Nation Enterprises allocates 25 percent of profits to the Cherokee government, which distributes the money in ways designed to help end the cycle of poverty - college scholarships, health care, and low-interest home loans. And the Seminole Nation offers grants for home repairs, which many of the ramshackle structures in Seminole County can sorely use. On the outskirts of Wewoka, the county seat, families loll on wooden porches that seem one gust of wind away from collapse.

And so, in recent years, a rush of Indians has come forward to claim tribal citizenship and get their share of the benefits. In 1980, there were 50,000 members of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma; today, there are more than a quarter million. But even as the official ranks of the Five Civilized Tribes have swelled, they've revised membership guidelines to exclude the Freedmen [descendants of black slaves formerly owned by the Indian nations] .

For the better part of the 20th century, black Indians were permitted to vote in elections, sit on tribal councils, and receive benefits. Tribal leaders now insist that the Freedmen were never actually citizens and that they will never attain the honor of membership because they don't have Native American blood. In 1983, the Cherokee tribe established a rule requiring citizens to carry a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. This federal document is available to anyone whose ancestors are listed on the Dawes Roll - a 1906 Indian census that excludes Freedmen. In 2000, the Seminoles expelled all 2,000 black members and denied their families a cut of the reparations money - never mind that their ancestors joined the tribe in the 18th century, endured the march from Florida to Oklahoma in the 1830s, and have considered themselves Indian for generations.

Read the whole thing here.

Here is a textbook example of how programs based on ethnic identity, no matter how well-intentioned, wind up promoting ethnic discrimination and conflict. When there's money involved, principles go out the window, and the system is rapidly corrupted.

Hmmmm. One of my ancestors, about eight generations back, was a Mohawk Indian. I wonder..., Nah!

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