William Loren Katz | 1/23/12
As 2011 ended the U.S. Senate voted 92 to 6 for the McCain-Levin amendments [S 1867] to the National Defense Authorization Act. In the name of fighting terrorism, an astounding majority of Democratic and Republican leaders granted unlimited authority to the president [and future presidents] and the Army to arrest anyone, citizen or foreigner, here or abroad, and imprison them in Poland, Pennsylvania, or Guantanamo or anywhere else—indefinitely. Ninety-two of our Senators agreed the detained could be denied access to attorneys and loved ones, and “enhanced interrogation” rather than legal procedures would determine if they are guilty of terrorist plots. True, some rigid constitutionalists and libertarians from Senator Rand Paul on the right to the ACLU on the left have condemned S 1867 as a threat to our core beliefs and democratic system. But S 167 swept through on the 235th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence.
Actually, we celebrated our founding document while undermining its principles in the centennial year of 1876, too. That year, what might be called a federal-state task force, which included a majority of members of Congress and the Supreme Court, and the president chose to override the Declaration’s bold assertion of liberty, the Constitution’s “more perfect Union” and Abraham Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom.” They did so to serve an unholy alliance of northern railroad builders and land speculators, unrepentant former slaveholders and assorted white supremacists—and their obedient lobbyists and media. What followed was a severe and simultaneous assault on the basic rights of Native Americans and African Americans that sent the country careening in a new direction.
It is deeply ironic and tragic that the rolls created by the very commission that eliminated Cherokee sovereignty at the beginning of the 1900s are the same rolls that are used as the definitive list to decide membership in the Cherokee Nation today. The blood lineality requirement often underscored in the Cherokee freedmen debate revolves around the Cherokee Nation’s requirement that Cherokee citizens prove their connection to an ancestor listed on the “Cherokee by blood” Dawes roll. Though some Indian nations require a specific Indian blood quantum for membership, the Cherokee Nation has a blood lineality (not blood quantum) requirement for Cherokee citizenship today. When one considers the central role of matrilineality in the past in defining one’s Cherokeeness, as well as the ways people could be adopted within the clan system in Indigenous Cherokee society, the current Cherokee citizenship requirement (based on the Dawes Rolls) becomes even more problematic and perplexing.
University of North Carolina Press author Celia Naylor provides historical context for the current debates surrounding the Cherokee freedmen. Naylor is the author of African Cherokees in Indian Territory: From Chattel to Citizens, which examines the intricate and emotionally charged history of Cherokee freedpeople.