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"Journalists Hit by Cherokee Vote to Oust Blacks"

"Journalists Hit by Cherokee Vote to Oust Blacks"

When the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to deny citizenship to the descendants of former African slaves, at least two black journalists felt the action personally.

Sam Ford, a reporter at Washington's WJLA-TV, had applied to vote in the election, and said his voter registration card came the day of the vote. He was born in Southeastern Kansas and put together a documentary about this little-known piece of Americana. "Black Slaves, Red Masters" aired on WJLA in 1991.

Kenneth Cooper, a freelancer and former national editor of the Boston Globe, said he confirmed at a National Association of Black Journalists convention in Atlanta that he and Ford were cousins, "linked by a Freedman who was a great-great grandfather of mine. We had suspected we were related since we first met years ago, when he told me he as a boy called my great-grandmother 'Cousin Florence.' His sister lives outside Atlanta, and when she pulled out the family tree, I spotted our common ancestor right away."

Cooper wondered on the NABJ e-mail list, "What is the position of the Native American Journalists Association on this? It might seem this is a matter of tribal politics that has nothing to do with NAJA, but it does. I was going to join NAJA several years ago, but to join you must be eligible for tribal membership, and I'm not."
Sam Ford

The Web site said on Monday, "With all precincts reporting, 77 percent of voters approved an amendment to the tribal constitution. Citizenship will be restricted to descendants of people who are listed on the Dawes Roll, but only those with verifiable Cherokee, Delaware or Shawnee blood.

The Dawes Rolls, a 1906 census commissioned by Congress to distribute land to tribal members, put the Freedmen on a separate roll that made no mention of Indian blood, the New York Times said.

"The amendment means the descendants of the Freedmen, former slaves who were made members of the Cherokee Nation by an 1866 treaty, won't be entitled to citizenship. Over 2,000 people will be kicked out of the tribe as a result," the story said.

However, it continued, "the legal and political issues at the center of the case draw the tribe, the second-largest in the U.S., into a battle that could undermine its sovereignty. Challenges are being planned at the tribal and federal level."

"In my opinion," Ford, 53, said, "Much of the Cherokee Nation is white people fronting as Indians, so therefore the vote is no surprise to me. What's sad is that many of the blacks who are now being booted out of the tribe have more Indian 'blood' in them than the so-called Indians."

Here's how Ford explained the history:

"A hundred years ago, when the government broke up the Indian nations in 'Indian Territory' into individual plots of land, they gave plots to each of the citizens as individuals, meaning some of the citizens of the nations were Indians, some were adopted whites and some were blacks, their former slaves who were made citizens by treaty after the Cherokees � who'd sided with the South � lost the Civil War. The government agency that divided up the land was called the Dawes Commission.

"Now, the law said the Indians could not sell their land. But the U.S. government then said that ruling did not apply to either adopted whites or blacks, the former slaves. What did that mean? Well, it meant this was a big loophole to allow whites to buy up this Indian land. And it also meant it was to the whites' (U.S. government's) advantage to declare black anybody who looked black, regardless of what kind of Indian blood they might have. And historians say the Dawes commission declared black any and everybody with any identifiable black features. They were put on the 'freedman' roll, whose descendants are now being booted out of the tribe."

Some of Ford's ancestors' stories were told in the slave narratives collected by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Reading them, he said, "was like finding a gold mine."

Kim Baca, executive director of NAJA, indicated it would not be a problem for Cooper and other Cherokee Freedmen to join NAJA. Its charter says, "Native American media professionals may be members of NAJA, hold office and vote. Individual members should be able to provide proof of tribal affiliation, if requested by the Board of Directors."

But Baca noted that the language does not say members must be "enrolled" in a tribe, and said that in the two years she had been with the organization, it had not asked anyone for proof of tribal affiliation.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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