Tahlequah Daily Press

August 26, 2011

Who can be a citizen?


TAHLEQUAH — Editor, Daily Press:

Sunday, July 10, the Daily Press [ran a letter I wrote] questioning the legality of the Freedmen claim to be recognized as citizens of the Cherokee Nation. A short passage in Article 9 that could possibly be construed as synonym for citizenship does not fit.

That short passage is taken from the peace treaty, titled “Treaty with the Cherokee, 1866, signed by Dennis N. Cooley, commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Elija Sells, superintendent of Indian Affairs, for the southern superintendency and the Cherokee Nation of Indians, represented by delegates James McDaniel, Smith Christie, White Catcher, S.H. Benge, J.B. Jones, and Daniel H. Ross – John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokees, being too unwell to join these negotiations.”

Referring to the Cherokee delegation: “They further agree that all Freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as all free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months, and their descendants, shall have all the rights of native Cherokees.”

I am not a lawyer, but anyone who is would point out the significance of the proper word to use in government documents or court of law. Assuming that [of] Commissioner Cooley and the many offices of professional advisers to assist him, there must be another meaning to this short passage, which has caused such consternation between two American minorities.

The blacks have a larger population; Cherokee Nation has less than 300,000 registered members, defending their rights as a Cherokee Nation. I hope we will be able to settle this problem that has lingered too long for both of our people in a peaceful manner. Both of our groups have suffered greatly throughout our history, not of our choosing. I went back to my papers and documents I have scanned many times. I believe this to be the reason the commissioner and his advisers used the passage above – “shall have all the rights of native Cherokees” – instead of using the words, “you will now be citizens of the Cherokee Nation.”

In more than one document, I ran across a statement about what different writers wrote about Commissioner Cooley and Secretary James Harlan. The pamphlet, “The Commissioners of Indian Affairs, 1824-1977,” by Robert M. Kvasnicka and Herman J. Viola, wrote these words:

“Many of the reforms were sorely needed. Harlan endorsed them and introduced the idea of using religious denominations to oversee the transition from savagery to civilization. Not surprisingly, the Harlan-Cooley approach to reform reflected a deep seated ethnocentrism. Their religious convictions (both were very active in Methodist affairs) and their humanitarian impulses caused them to reject the idea of extermination as barbaric, but they clearly saw the elimination of Indian culture as a laudable objective.”

With the humanitarian side exposed in their religious leanings, this manifested itself by making the lives of the ex-slaves of Cherokee owners safe – by giving land to all freed slaves who would have been in danger as they lived within the confines of the Cherokee Nation. The Indian nations were still a very dangerous place. Having the rights of all natives made it safe. In reality, these eight words did not mean all Freedmen would become Cherokee citizens – only those with Indian blood. The rest would have all the rights of the natives and the protection of the nation.

By taking this action, the framers and writers of this peace treaty knew their limits and did not have the power to make anyone a citizen of any Indian tribe without the consent of that tribe. So, fellow Cherokees, remember: All immigrants cannot become citizens just by having all rights you have.

John D. Ketcher