Taylor Keen: The Disenfranchisement of the Cherokee Freedmen: Assertion or Abuse of Sovereignty?

Native Nations Institute

Taylor Keen (Cherokee), a former member of the Cherokee Nation Council, discusses the stand he took against his nation's recent decision to disenfranchise the Cherokee Freedman. He offers a convincing argument against the move, explaining that taking away the citizenship rights of the Freedmen solely based on the criterion of race contradicts Cherokee cultural values and threatens the long-term viability of the Cherokee Nation's sovereign rights.

Native Nations
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Keen, Taylor. "The Disenfranchisement of the Cherokee Freedmen: Assertion or Abuse of Sovereignty?" Nation Building: Governance and Development. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 19, 2007. Presentation.

“Manley [Begay], thank you, once again, and thanks to the University of Arizona and the Native Nations Institute. It’s an honor for me to be here today. This is my first in Tucson. My first time down this neck of the woods and it’s beautiful place. And I said it’s an honor for me to be here.

Well, the topic I wanted to visit with you about today was certainly something I never thought would come to pass. I’ve spent all my life, I’m Omaha on one side and Cherokee on the other and I grew up in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, which is the capital of the Cherokee Nation. Well I’d like to say, all my life I’ve been in Cherokee; I’ve been around it. There in Oklahoma, it’s kind of a unique story. Many of the tribal nations, we weren’t allowed to govern ourselves much after statehood, after 1907. We were this close to coming to termination. It was only because of energy reserves there in Oklahoma -- oil, natural gas -- that we were able to maintain a collective tribal voice. But for all intents and purposes, the laws of the Cherokee nation were rendered null and void.

So in the late 1960s there was a resurgence primarily came out of the Office of Economic [Opportunity] under President Lyndon Johnson -- the anti-poverty programs -- and thus began the sort of rebuilding of many of the tribal nations there in Oklahoma. My father, the late Ralph Keen, he was one of the first, he was the first modern employee of the Cherokee Nation and spoke of terms such as sovereignty, years ago before it certainly was politically allowable. I hate to use those kind of terms today. A lot of us enjoy full tribal sovereignty. We’re, in many senses, thriving today. But in those days, it was not something that was commonplace, especially for the Five Tribes in Oklahoma. So we literally had to begin the rebuilding process for our Cherokee Nation piece by piece. And that began with the Principal Chiefs Act in 1973 and basically allowed for the Five Tribes in Oklahoma to be able to have public elections for our chiefs. And then slowly through case law and subsequent legislation, we were able to rebuild our governments.

Today, the modern day Cherokee Nation, we’re the second-largest tribal nation in the United States, second to the Diné. We have over 265,000 tribal members. All aspects of our government are alive and well and sound. From the federal perspective, we leverage over $300 million into Northeast Oklahoma, we provide almost 7,000 jobs and have a thriving gaming industry. The story that I want to talk about today begins and ends in the year 1866.

What was the role of the Cherokee Nation in the Civil War of the United States? Anybody know?

The majority of the tribes in Oklahoma, including all of the Five Civilized Tribes -- that term comes from treaties we signed, a treaty with the Confederacy, and thus sealed our fate. Now, regardless of what the desires for Northern or Southern sympathies, and there were both within the Cherokee Nation -- arguably there were many with sympathies towards the Union. The reality of the situation is that out on the east coast was where the primary battles were happening and areas such as Kansas and Oklahoma were basically left unguarded. Certainly, the Confederacy had a stronger presence there and actually had a cunning secret weapon and that was Albert Pike. And he was a former federal Indian agent for the United States and then joined the Confederacy and became the lead negotiator with a lot of the tribes. And the deal that they promised to all the tribes in Oklahoma was quite profound, actually. The Confederacy knew all the wants and the weaknesses of the United States government and promised all the Five Tribes many of those enhancements. And that was recognized court systems, the federal court system within their jurisdiction, they promised to educate many of our youth in the military academies, and that we’d have a strong voice in what would become the Confederacy of the United States. So, having said that, the Cherokee signed a treaty in 1866. I mean signed a treaty with the Confederacy and upon the Confederates being defeated we had slaughtered ourselves as a people. Many people cite the Trail of Tears as the worst tragedy for the Cherokee Nation and it paled in comparison to the amount of lives lost in the Civil War. The Trail of Tears, somewhere between 2,000-4,000 Cherokees died. And the Civil War, it was 2-3 times that amount and we slaughtered one another. Very arguably, our entrance into the Civil War was old feelings that we harbored on how we dealt with the Trail of Tears. It’s all about the Ross party and the Treaty party and those culminated, continued in the battle afterwards.

But at the conclusion of the war, because we had signed a treaty with the Confederacy, the Cherokee Nation ended its legal continuum with the United States -- we had lost our standing. So, we were forced to come back to the table, and without question in a weaker position with the United States, but we wanted to maintain that federal relationship for the good of our own people. In doing so, the United States was in a much stronger bargaining position. What is now Oklahoma was formerly Indian Territory and the Cherokee had a majority of that land base. The whole northern portions out to the panhandle, those lands were ceded back to the United States in exchange for money. Our coffers were drained and we were broken as a nation. So part of the reparations for signing the treaty with the Confederacy, the United States asked several things. They gave us some money, we ceded up land, and to deal with a larger ‘Indian problem’ as it were, there was a couple of rogue bands of tribes out of Kansas that had no home -- the band of Shawnee and the band of Delaware -- and in that treaty the United States asked us to take them on as citizens. So they became Delaware Cherokees and Shawnee Cherokees.

In the same language of that treaty, the Freedmen were emancipated, of course. In U.S. history, the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed and in effect was promulgated to the tribes. So subsequently, in amendments to the 1866 treaty, the Freedmen were given citizenship within the Cherokee Nation and went on to serve in several leadership roles. One of the foremost was Stick Ross, and still many areas around Tahlequah commemorate his leadership as a Freedmen councilor -- the same office that I held. Upon statehood, the wheels came off of everything, and basically we were this close to being terminated, but yet the citizenship status of the Freedmen maintained. And historically you can go back and look and anytime there were resources of any type -- money, payments for the lands that were taken from us -- somebody would try and disenfranchise the Freedmen or they’d have to fight for their rights. So this continued well through the 1960s and when we re-established our new government, the fight continued. So in the 1980s, there was what we call the CDIB law -- CDIB is Certified Degree of Indian Blood. It’s a federal mandate that says you’re a federally recognized tribal member and that law was passed, in effect, keeping the Freedmen out.

There was a case in the 1980s known as the Riggs Decision, which upheld the constitutionality of that legislative act. And as time has gone on, our government has matured and evolved and we recently went through a process for constitutional revision. It was really a historic thing for the Cherokee Nation. We had a broad spectrum of individuals from different communities, different groups that came together and we looked at our constitutional government and said, ‘What things need to be better?’ Obviously, there were some things around separation of powers, staggering of terms, office of attorney general was created, term limits on public officials, empowerment of our judicial branch went from a judicial appeals tribunal to a full Supreme court, and then they created two seats, in an unprecedented move from a tribal nation, to recognize those tribal citizens who didn’t live inside of the boundaries the Cherokee Nation. Well, with most tribes, that is the majority of the tribal citizens. So with respect to at-large Cherokee, those living outside the boundaries, a seat -- that I sought for and was able to get -- represented those, easily a majority, of the Cherokee citizens living outside the boundaries. So when that process came to be, it was up to the council to determine who was going to get those seats. And without question, everything that was on people’s minds was about the Freedmen. And we did have an initiative petition referendum that happened in March, a little over a year and a half ago. But prior to that, the year prior, was a decision that was handed down by our Supreme Court that reversed the Riggs Decision, which essentially affirmed the citizenship rights of the Cherokee Freedmen.

So when our court handed that down, that was the real tipping point that started off this whole controversy. And our court basically looked at the constitution and the language and said that even though laws had been passed to keep them out of the constitutional, from a Supreme Court perspective, they still viewed their right as citizens as still intact. And when that happened, very quickly after, the executive branch, Chief [Chad] Smith approached the council in a regular session and encouraged them to undo what the Supreme Court had done. And his words, you know, three people changed the course of history, which is to me a sad portrayal of a respected branch of government and encouraged the Cherokee council to pass a bill that would put the Freedmen’s citizenship on the slate for general election. They wanted a special election to happen subsequently after that, which would have needed a two-thirds majority and it failed. So thus became the tool of the Cherokee people, which was initiative petition and we had a special election. In true political terms, special elections, like any other, all of us who vote -- most of us don’t vote and it’s no different for Indian people -- and a very small percentage of people came out to vote, 7,500 I believe was the number, to vote on whether or not the Freedmen were to be disenfranchised or not. And sadly, basically a 70 percent to 30 percent [vote], they were disenfranchised.

Now after that became more of my involvement as a tribal leader. When interviewed for the seat of councilor at-large, they asked me some pinnacle questions, first of which is: do tribes have the right to determine their own membership? And my answer, along with everyone else, was ‘Yes! But in doing so, we have to keep in mind our own morality and our belief system. And more importantly, is this the right thing to do or not?’ So the two seats were split, as was the power on the council, and it continued that way for some time to come. Since then, the fallout to the Cherokee Nation has been on a global basis. I know I was interviewed by the New York Times directly after the vote and my fate was cast politically when asked the questions, what my opinion was on the topic. And I basically quoted that I felt this was a sad chapter in Cherokee history and that my words were, ‘This is not my Cherokee Nation. My Cherokee Nation honors all parts of her past and history.’ And by many people, that moral stance, I was vilified by many public opinion articles. I think at one point I was called a ‘treasonous coward’ for not supporting the will of the people and the movements of our tribal government. In my opinion, just quite honestly at its core, regardless of what the spin was, I saw the local racism and I viewed it as a cancer within the Cherokee Nation that needs to be expelled. And that certainly was not what the public spin on it was. The public spin has been ‘tribes have the right to determine their own membership.’ The Cherokee Nation and many tribal nations are in a very precarious situation. So from a political perspective, many have argued in the media and other leaders in the halls of Congress and the Senate today that we have lost the moral high ground. There was a poignant political cartoon in the Tulsa World, which certainly keeps up with a lot of our events, and the cartoon had two large water fountains up here and two smaller ones here, and the ones up above said ‘White and Cherokee’ and down here it said ‘Colored and Freedmen.’ And basically, for all intensive purposes, our disenfranchisement of the Freedmen is sadly a repeat of the Jim Crow laws, which Oklahoma began as; you look at Bill No. 1 out of the House and Senate that passed into law was a Jim Crow law, segregation law, in Oklahoma. So that’s kind of the framework for what has transpired.

One of the reasons I wanted to come visit the class and American Indian Studies program was to share my experience, especially for those of you who all are in tribal affairs, might be representatives of your tribal governments someday. We need to think about every decision that we make as leaders and understand the impact of what might happen. And more importantly, from my perspective, is that as complicated as politics might be, that we need to look no further than our own belief system, whether something is moral or immoral. The reality of the impact, as Manley said -- what has happened with the Cherokee Nation, what still might happen -- this issue has certainly pitted us against former allies. Today, members of the Congressional Black Caucus in Congress led by Congresswoman Diane Watson out of San Francisco is a co-sponsor, along with 21 other members of Congress, who have a termination bill ready to be submitted into committee. There’s tacit support right there from the State of Oklahoma and our two senators, [Jim] Inhofe and [Tom] Coburn, who are ready to pick it up in the Senate. Basically, it would terminate our federal recognition as Cherokee Nation until we reinstate the Freedmen. Well what does that mean? That cuts off to $300 million, 7,000 jobs, our right to game, and certainly, our prominence and our position as arguably one of the best-practiced tribes in the United States. We have also pitted ourselves against the NAACP who come out on a local, regional, and national standpoint to crime what the Cherokee Nation has done. And you know this is a larger discussion around sovereignty. And for somebody who watched the Cherokee Nation go from one person to 7,000 and the prominence that we have today, I never thought that I would be in any position to question: what is sovereignty? But I stand here today questioning what it means to be sovereign as tribal nations. In this instance, many can argue that what we did was inherently racist. To deny that there is racism in the world is foolish. To see it and not do anything, to me, is a tragedy.

Question: How were citizens educated on this issue?

Well in terms of the vote itself, I was sadly disappointed because there was zero efforts put towards the education of both sides of the issue. It was squarely, without question, from the Cherokee Nation’s perspective they only made the argument for disenfranchisement. And basically it was under the spin of...they used the argument of ‘by blood only.’ Now the first name of the bill as it came through Cherokee Council, I mean pretty much, just said the Freedmen Disenfranchisement Bill and somebody very quickly said, ‘Oh, that sounds racist! Let’s not call it that. We don’t want people to get the wrong idea.’ So they called it the ‘By Blood.’ The net effect of the policy is excluded only one class of citizen, and that was the Cherokee Freedmen. So they’re saying ‘by blood’ and you only have to have Cherokee blood. Well we’ve got Shawnees and Delawares who are citizens who are not Cherokee and yet they’re allowed to stay in. I said it was very disappointing to me because I, as a leader of the Cherokee Nation, really just took it on my shoulders with a handful of others who had political aspirations or just out of the drive of morality, tried to go out and talk to people. I went to community groups all around the United States to try to educate people on this topic, but it was one against the machine and the machine wanted them out. I very quickly learned that there was a succession of ideology within the Cherokee Nation that had long kept them out. And I wasn’t signing up to be a part of the club. And there was fierce resistance against. So those that were educated on the topic probably were given the rationale and the argument to disenfranchise. And most of them were, you know, on the ‘by blood’ sort of discussion. ‘We have the right to do this. We’re a sovereign nation.’ Well the reality is, I mean, we’re as sovereign as the plenary power of Congress allows us to and there’s no tribal nation in the United States that is not affected by the whim of Congress. So I do think that a lot of people chose not to get involved. Again this to me, this is really about citizenship on a broad level, not just citizenship rights of Freedmen versus others. It’s not just about being an active citizen and paying attention, but it’s paying attention to what’s really happening and seeing through what is rhetoric and understanding what the issues are. I think if people had known that we would’ve been in the position where we are today, which is probably not unlike the United States and our war in Iraq, we wouldn’t have done it all again.

Has the Cherokee Nation reached that level of understanding? Probably not yet. There are many pundits within the Cherokee Nation, activists who are saying it’s going to take us to get terminated for us to see what we did was wrong. And there’s certainly parts of me that don’t disagree with that because it’s still barreling along; every chance that Chief Smith gets, he beats the podium about sovereignty and why we have the right to do this. My position is very simple. As tribal nations, we do have few aspects of sovereignty left and we do have the right to exercise those [rights. The] question is with that right comes great responsibility. Because the potential ramifications of all of this is that from a legal perspective many of the tribes, we have that right to determine our membership. We don’t have control over judicial matters. There’s Public Law 280, there’s Indian Reorganization Act, all these things that diminish our rights as sovereign nations. One of the last ones was to determine our own membership and Cherokee Nation chose to run this gauntlet to the end. It’s a wrong one to take to the hoop in my opinion. The ramifications are that it could overturn Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez and ruin it for all tribes. There’s a case right now in federal court Vann v. Kempthorne, which is essentially saying that U.S. citizens, African-American citizens, were promised citizenship in the Cherokee Nation based on the 1866 Treaty. It was a sovereign to a sovereign, and they were guaranteed citizenship and now they’re being disenfranchised. And they’re protections are under the 13th Amendment, which is basically in the case that’s gone before [in the] U.S. District Court in Washington [D.C.] is around that disenfranchisement, which takes away most fundamental rights of citizenship, which is the right to vote. In the past, sovereign immunity of the tribes, precedent of Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez would’ve thrown it out of court. But not only did U.S. District Court in Washington [D.C.] accept it as a federal case, but they joined the Cherokee Nation as a defendant. So perhaps, already the sovereign immunity has been blown off. It opens it up to federal intervention. Now your purists of sovereignty would say that that’s a tragedy. Others are going to look at it and say, ‘Well, there needs to be some sense of justice.’ If Indians don’t treat their own people right, where’s the recourse?

Question: How has the media responded to this event?

Two comments: one is, what makes this such a media magnet? And it definitely had a national and a global appeal. I’ve got a stack of emails after all this, people condemning the Cherokee Nation for what they did. One of the main differences is in the fact, I don’t think anyone can deny that there’s racism all across the world. And no one’s going to deny that there was racism within Cherokee citizens beforehand. The key difference is this was an organized effort by a tribal nation, and a prominent one, to disenfranchise. That was one. The second has to do with our standing as Indian nations in the United States. There’s a perception that because of gaming, that we’re all rich, fat, dumb and happy and that this was the first swipe against sovereignty. Many people think that Indian tribes, that we’re all doing extremely well. The reality is that the social demographics are still against Indian people and we’re behind the eight ball probably more than any other racial affinity group in the United States. But yes, has this situation damaged many tribes? I think most definitely.

Question: Don't the events surrounding this decision share similarities with the events preceding the Trail of Tears?

The ironies in this are limitless. Our hypocrisy in the Cherokee Nation knows no bounds, because that is no different than the Marshall Trilogy and Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and finally Worcester v. Georgia, which was the pinnacle landmark case for all federal Indian law. The reason that Indian tribes have any sovereignty today stems from those cases, the Cherokee trilogy. Ultimately, we fought. Cherokee Nation fought for our ancestral homelands in the Southeast. We won in the Supreme Court and again, in a constitutional crisis for the United States, President Andrew Jackson's comment -- after the Cherokee’s rights were to the land were affirmed -- his comment was, Andrew, I mean, ‘Justice Marshall has made his decision now let’s see him enforce it.’ Meaning the president has the power of the army and I don’t care what the Supreme Court said, I’m going to march them out on the Trail of Tears. So yes, the irony has just struck close to many of patriots in the Cherokee Nation saying this is no different than what Andrew Jackson did. This is a slight to our judicial branch and lack of respect for what should be the final word. It’s also ironic that today our only defense against the Termination Bill in Congress has been a very thinly veiled statement by Chief Smith, which is saying, ‘Don’t do this. Let us play this out in court.’ It’s already been played out in court in the Cherokee Nation. You know, we are in a constitutional crisis. When you don’t heed the words of the Supreme Court, then you’re in a constitutional crisis.

Question: How does the leadership justify ignoring the decision made by the Cherokee Supreme Court? Do they just make the sovereignty argument?

It’s certainly come up. It was a matter of timing. There was a precarious window in between the initiative petition referendum, a vote of the people, which validated and changed the constitution and the ruling of the court. So in between then was when I was most vocal and I certainly saw the resentment as I said, ‘We’re in a constitutional crisis. We’re not paying attention to our Supreme Court.’ After the vote, then they could easily stand over here and say, ‘Hey, we’ve changed the constitution. This is not a crisis anymore.’ But the reality is what does it do to our case law in the Cherokee Nation? And also, what does it do on a federal level. This begs a whole new question of what happens when a tribe breaks a treaty. Every time that a federally recognized tribe goes to court to defend its sovereignty they’re citing a litany of the legal continuum. And in our case, if we violate the treaty of 1866, that’s one of the three legs of federal recognition is the legal continuum. You have to prove that you have a relationship with the United States. If we sever it, is that as well? So there’s two points that are now vulnerable. An attack of Congress on our sovereignty or could someone in the Bureau of Indian Affairs say, ‘Look, they no longer meet the requirements of federal recognition.’

Question: What was gained by this decision? And what was lost?

Well at the time that the vote happened, and again I will forever in my...if that was the end of my Cherokee political career that’s what I will be remembered for, the statements that I made in the New York Times. What I said at the time -- and again I was very tired at the time about 11 o’clock at night when that reporter talked to me -- and I said I felt it was political pandering by Chief Smith to get re-elected, pandering to a racist vote in northeast Oklahoma. And they certainly felt that was newsworthy and published it. So that was certainly one of the short-term gains. But at the same time from a local perspective, I think Chief Smith has engineered a mastery...he’s defending sovereignty. So no matter what the outcome, he’s saying, ‘I’m defending the right of the people. This is the will of the people!’ I’ve heard that so many times, it makes me sick, with such a low turnout, 7500 out of 265,000 potential citizens, obviously not all of which are of age to vote but still a very poor turnout. That is not the will of the people. And more importantly, and again this is, there were a lot of people that didn’t agree with it. Did they get out and vote? No. So what was gained? Maybe another election, maybe an assertation by Cherokees that defended their identity; I said it was that political satire in the cartoon form was so hitting to home. I mean everybody said ‘oof’ when they saw it because it brought forth all the images of beginning of statehood and Jim Crow laws. And this goes to a much broader discussion about identity. And identity is the most important thing we have as human beings. These are some of our traditional teachings: to know where you came from, to know where you’re going. They’re tied. And so much of America, we embrace this melting pot philosophy that many people don’t know who they are. I mean all my life and the rest of my life people come up to me say, ‘You’re Cherokee, aren’t you?’ and I say, ‘Yeah, I’m Cherokee.’ And they say, ‘My great-grandmother was a princess.’ ‘Well, mine were nothing.’ But it’s a desire to be a part of something.

And I think some of y’all have read Circe Sturm’s book on blood politics. And interestingly enough, Circe’s work foreshadows what’s happening. It’s her latest work, which is unpublished at this point, talks about identity and she focuses in on Cherokees. And she focuses more on what we, I think, sadly have to refer to within the Cherokee Nation, is potential ‘wannabes.’ She talks about there is well over 440 of these groups across the United States across 44 different states, that they’re groups that self-identify as being Cherokee. All of which have some loose association with ‘We fell off the Trail of Tears. We decided to get off of the Trail of Tears.’ In reality, [as] a student of history, as one of the instructors of Cherokee history, those incidents were very, very small. And from a tribal perspective, we held on together and many people died. But is there any mathematical possibility that all those people could be out there? No.

One of the examples that you might see in the media as well is Ward Churchill; he’s one of these. And I know Ward. I even consider him a friend of mine. But I know the story. Before all of this happened that his grandmother told him on her deathbed, ‘You’re Cherokee.’ So he took that at face value. He somehow got caught up in this whole national battle, basically over censorship and his position on the war. But people went in and studied his genealogy. The only tie they found with an Indian was and Indian fighter in the Southeast. So it just makes you wonder who in his family, out of guilt from him being an Indian fighter, or their desire to have a grander part of American history? To me it goes back to even the guilty conscience of America for what they did to the Native Americans. I was growing up, and I hope it’s different today in state-sponsored curriculum, but they didn’t say what happened in Oklahoma. They didn’t say that the land was taken from the Five Tribes. They didn’t describe that Sooners were the people that stole Cherokee land before the land rush was even sanctioned. All these things are just ignored. So maybe this is some way that people can identify with something romantic that America has lost.

Circe and I talk about this stuff all the time. We get as philosophical as we can, but trying to regain something that we lost through identity. And I said identity is one of the most powerful things that we have. We want to know who we are and where we come from. And in some sense maybe people are jealous of us. Certainly within the Cherokee Nation, with this vote, that was without question. That was a very broad stance by a number of people that they felt that this was a way that they could gain credibility. Even though I’ve only got one drop. We’ve got people that are one over 2,048. This is a fraction of one percent. And if you’re going to look at determining tribal identity by blood quantums, we’re in trouble. Because all it takes is one of Congress to say, ‘You know what, 1/2,048 is not an Indian.’ And I’ve never endorsed that. To me this is what this vote is moving towards. Whether we like it or not, it’s pushing it towards because all it takes is a member of Congress to look at it and say, ‘Well you kicked out the Freedmen, you kicked out the black people. So you’ve got people who aren’t even real Cherokees, so let’s get rid of them.' There’s another 5,000. There’s another 5,000 with the Shawnees and Delawares. And what are all these people who are not? Ninety percent of the Cherokee Nation is under one-quarter blood quantum. So if somebody put a quarter blood quantum, we’d go from 265,000 to 30 or 40 at best. And then what have we won? What did we gain? We’re not gaining much. What have we lost? Well, potential sovereignty, one of the last bits for all tribes, the right to determine our own membership. We put at risk, tribal nations as being inherently racist. We lose the possibility of being a moral leader. We’ve lost the moral high ground.

And I’ve heard so many quotes of the Cherokees. ‘The oppressed have become the oppressors,’ the bylines in the BBC Global after all of this happened. The day of the vote was the same as Selma, Mississippi and that was the way they viewed it. Well, in a day commemorating the terrible point in racial policies in America. Sadly, the Cherokee Nation, a prominent tribe in the United States, has now disenfranchised the Freedmen. They’re not citizens of their own nation. We’ve lost so much and I don’t know how we’re going to make it up. We’re so far from the point of...to me, that’s the point I got up and spoke on. ‘This isn’t over until we get on our hands and knees and beg the Freedmen for forgiveness.’ And I look at a room of tribal leaders and they’re… (motions a turned head). I’m speaking blasphemy to ‘sovereignty.’ But to me this is no different than my own values. ‘Do unto others.’ It’s the Golden Rule and we’re not following that. And it’s based on the chest beating of ‘We’re sovereign. We have a right to do this.’

Question: How Do You Think We Should Define Citizenship?

Well, my first answer on all this is this really comes down to an interpretation to what it means to be a member of a nation. And to me, it’s a slippery slope to try to define around race. And the first reason I think it’s so detrimental is because if we define it by race, it’s going to be limited to very much flawed data, where it comes from. The Cherokees, all Five Tribes in Oklahoma, our membership comes from a flawed set of census records called the Dawes Rolls, which is around the Dawes Commission whose whole purpose was to disenfranchise our land base. On those rolls are Freedmen so there’s a reason in our Supreme Court why they were deemed citizens, because the Freedmen citizens are on the rolls. Beyond that, arguably up to at least a third if not half to two thirds of the Freedmen have Cherokee blood. At the time of the rolls, people looked and said, ‘You’ve got Black blood. You’re on the Freedmen rolls.’ We had multiple exceptions of that brought to the Council of showing us that they were more than just exceptions of it. But to me, a mark of a great nation, its citizenship is based not on race. Is the United States based on race? God forbid, what would happen if it were? Great nations are defined by common cultures and history, and our sense of community, perhaps ideals beyond it. That’s one of the reason to me why this is just a poor slippery slope of a discussion of having identity based on race alone. This doesn't make us great nations. Matter of fact, whenever you begin to look at blood quantum and racial definitions, you look at Apartheid, you look at Nazi Germany with Hitler, you look at the American eugenics movement early in the United States; these are very sad points in history. But to me again, race is just, it’s a very poor foundation for citizenship. It should be much broader than that. More importantly in the United States, we’ve got the 13th amendment, which provides equal protection for all citizens, protects against racism institutionalizing governments.

Question: What Are Your Next Steps With This Issue?

Well my parting words after I lost the election to the same mathematical principle that the Freedmen lost their citizenship, my parting words on the Council were, ‘I look forward to being, continue to be an active citizen in the Cherokee Nation.’ And I still hope to. I’ve had several people make comments to me and it’s interesting when people say stuff about you like this, but one of the comments that stuck in my head was, ‘Taylor, I can’t decide whether you’re well before or well after your time.’ And one of the other comments that really struck home with me was, ‘You have to be prepared.’ I asked for moral and spiritual support from my home community and this is one of the areas that Manley and I share -- a common belief system, where we believe prayer, we believe in getting support, and I asked for a prayer ceremony. One of the outcomes of that was by a very wise person who looked at me and said, ‘Taylor, you’re going to have to be prepared that the seed you’ve planted may not come to fruition for many years. And many people are going to misinterpret what you’ve been trying to do. And you’re going to have to continue to be prepared to be attacked for that position where the people misunderstand your position and what you’re trying to do.’ But they encouraged me to continue to push that.

As time has gone on, I find that there is definitely a need on the national Native front as well as within the local politics of the Cherokee Nation that there needs to be an answer. A lot of people I know, Manley challenged me on that before. Our discussion earlier was, ‘Well you’ve talked about that this isn’t right, but what is the answer?’ And again that’s where I come back and say citizenship is the answer for all the tribal nations. Those parameters need to be defined and encouraged in a healthy matter. But to me it’s taking away from race and more in terms of what really matters to us as any collective group of people, tribal peoples or not, or a great nation. But it’s a common culture, history and a sense of community. When we talk about the Freedmen, they walked on the Trail of Tears with us. Yes the invention of slavery was not ours, but sadly we embraced it. We embraced the whole antebellum culture of the South, the plantation economy. That’s why we were called 'civilized.' Where’s the irony in that?

So to me, we have to build a greater society, one that is just as well. Those principles have to be based, and to me we don't have to look any further than our own culture. The Harvard Project, we talk about that culture matters so much. And I just look back to our base teachings of the Cherokee, of our [Cherokee language] society, keepers of our wampum belts that come from the Six Nations. We’re a part of that legacy. And it talks about the white path of how you’re supposed to live. And we have many teachings. The one I always cite is, ‘As leaders, as individuals even, every decision you make you have to keep in mind the next seven generations.’ And when I had to look at myself in the mirror and go to sleep at night, the answer was clear on the Freedmen issue -- that if we made this decision, it was going to harm things for up to seven generations. And to me those teachings are just there. The base teaching of all Indian peoples that I’ve ever seen is ‘be good to one another.’ All of our ceremonies, our dances, our prayers, everything, just encourages us how to survive as a tribe.

Our tribe is just, we’re communities but we’re tied through culture and history. We’ve always had people who are not a part of our bloodlines. Look at Cherokees themselves. We’re an amalgamation of peoples. We have influence from the Southeast. Our own origin stories say that we came from probably Polynesian island, came into South America and moved up. Our language is the last surviving southern dialect of Algonquian. We’re a New England tribe by much of our culture. We are an amalgamation. You look at the Muskogee Creek Nation, look at the Seminoles; they’re collections or confederacies of vast different cultures. So we have to find what’s good. That should be our beacon.

Question: What Tools Did You Need in Order to Make Your Stand on This Issue?

That’s probably the toughest question of them all. I look back to my own upbringing and fortunately I had two parents who were involved around a lot of those in particular with the Cherokees -- my father, and he grilled us all accordingly -- but there was a very strong emphasis on ethics. From the first time you bullied somebody in first grade, or you got bullied and didn’t fight back, we got grilled. I think without question, now I realize that my father was grooming us all. And no matter what the situation, you had to explain why you were doing something. And we had personal edicts in the family. First of all was do what the old folks told you to do: go out, get a good education, do the best you can, get the best education you can get and then go home and serve your people. Well that was a lot of rhetoric until I returned home and had to do it. The more difficult part was sticking to the ideals. Swaying to public opinion is a very easy thing to do. Sticking to one’s morals is very different. And to me, you don’t have to look past the little voice in your head. That’s what they taught us at business school in the wake of all these business atrocities on Wall Street. Harvard tries to come up with a whole sentence of what is ethics? And the best answer that they could ever tell us was just a little voice in your head. If you question one thing about it, then it’s probably not moral. Having the fortitude inside to make that decision and to stick with it when you’re attacked on a daily basis; I don’t have any words. Myself, I rely on my spirituality, the belief system that I know is right regardless of what happens, you try to do the right thing. And these are, as tribal people we have these teachings. Be good to one another. My grandmother said, ‘Your worst enemy, no matter what, remember they’re human. Go up and shake their hand. If their mother’s sick, you ask them how their mom’s doing.’ She goes, ‘I don’t care how much, you can’t do that, don’t say anything,’ she said. These are just the teachings and we have to stick to them. Big picture, life is this short. You’ve got one chance. Me, I can live with myself. I made a decision. I didn’t sway to public opinion and I’ve been attacked all the way through for the stance I’ve made. Hopefully, it will provide a different test for people to follow.

Final Thoughts on Citizenship

Russell Thorpe, now at the University of California, he’s a Cherokee scholar and he writes on a topic called mathematical genocide, which is essentially explaining and proving mathematically that if you have blood quantum that, I think the number was if there was a quarter, which is what was suggested by the Indian Reorganization Act in the United States, that tribes would be, you’d either be so watered down between different tribes or intermarriage outside the tribal realms that there would be no more tribal nations by 2070. But my parting thoughts are on, I spent time overseas in London in Europe, and to me the British culture, the British Empire is really a way of thinking and a language and a way of treating one another. And while the English don’t own or dominate the British Empire anymore, their culture survives. And I agree with you. We have to determine, we have to come up with our own culture, our own way of identifying those values. And maybe it’s matters of the heart or maybe it’s the teachings, or a combination of all of them, or the experiences that we’ve all been through together. Once again, thank you very much."

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