A Cherokee Nation "blue card" allows a carrier citizenship in the state's largest tribe. But the nondescript card, simply worded, has brought with it a complex controversy that has triggered congressional action, rallied tribal members and riveted national attention.
The Cherokee Nation is knee-deep in a membership struggle that whispers of civil rights, while remaining anchored to the ideal of tribal sovereignty. With, as of press time, an appeals court date set for May 6 in Washington, D.C., three federal judges were slated to review the tribe's right to choose membership versus descendants of freed slaves who claim citizenship via a treaty never altered by Congress.
'RIGHT TO A BLUE CARD'
The mention of pro freedmen or pro sovereignty sparks a lively debate in households across the tribe's 14-county, northeastern Oklahoma jurisdiction. Ironically, this debate was birthed miles away by an Oklahoma City engineer who claims that her Cherokee bloodline entitles her to membership.
Legally a tribal absentee voter, Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen Association, has carried her fight to be Cherokee by law into the halls of the U.S. Congress. Her preoccupation with getting her Cherokee blue card was born from a life of knowing, claiming and hugging her Indian heritage, she said.
"I always knew I was Cherokee in addition to being black; my father's sister had lived on her tribal allotment until right before her death," Vann said. "We know we have a right to be in the tribe and we intend to fight for it."
MUCH AT STAKE
With millions in tribal funds for high-caliber attorneys, limitless sovereignty speak and hefty lobbying efforts, the Cherokee Nation has been dogged in the business of minimizing the descendants of freedmen's treaty claims.
The Cherokee Nation is nearly 80 percent dependent on federal funding and operates with a budget of more than $320 million, tribal council budgets records show.
Pro-freedmen descendants supporters, like members of the Congressional Black Caucus, have maintained that the U.S. government will not sanction or subsidize racism. U.S. House Bill 2824 is alive in Congress, instructing the tribe to adhere to its treaty of 1866 that guaranteed freedmen tribal citizenship. Ignored, Cherokee Nation will risk severing government-to-government relations and its federal moneys, a bill draft reads. "S.E. Ruckman