Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

...adjourning in honor of Wilma Mankiller

[CORRECTED 6:48 PM, thanks to @ericgarcetti. I confused my Sugarbaker girls, though I had the right one in mind; Dixie Carter played Julia.]

I was home recovering from dental matters for a few hours today (deferred maintenance; neglect of my infrastructure), so I immediately turned to LA CityView Channel 35. I caught something most of us are spared, most of the time: the city council, adjourning in memory of people.

Adjourning in someone's memory is almost as great an opportunity for ceremonial bloviation as anything involving the calligraphers and the scrolls. But my soft chewy center is often touched by the regular and remarkable people who get the honor. Council President Eric Garcetti Tuesday adjourned in honor of Dixie Carter, mother to some friends of his, as well as badass Julia Sugarbaker on Designing Women. Then Councilwoman Janice Hahn adjourned in remembrance of Wilma Mankiller.

Hahn identified Mankiller as a former chief of the Cherokee Nation, the first woman chief. The LA Times ran an AP obituary of Mankiller recently. I think Hahn was citing from it - the obit called her someone who faced conflict head on. Hahn pointed out, too, that "Mankiller led the tribe in tripling its enrollment, doubling employment and building health centers and children's programs."

What made Mankiller's achievement even more remarkable is that she did so even as she kicked out a group of people who had long held claims to tribal identity.

While I was living in New Orleans, I flew to Oklahoma and reported on the Cherokee Freedmen's situation a few years back. Freedmen were slaves and former slaves who traveled with the Cherokee nation over the Trail of Tears, sometimes intermarrying with Cherokees, sometimes working for them. (If you're interested: a professor named Claudio Saunt wrote a terrific book named Black, White & Indian, one of many on the topic of slaves and the Five Civilized Tribes.)

After the civil war, a treaty gave citizenship rights to freed slaves who chose to live with the Cherokee Nation. At the turn of the 20th century, the Dawes Commission enrolled those freedmen as part of the Five Civilized Tribes. Those rolls weren't perfect: most anyone with slave blood was listed as a freedmen, not as a Cherokee, even if they had Cherokee blood. And in other of the Five Nations, freedmen never had voting rights. Still, freedmen in the Cherokee nation did vote and take part in the community. One even held a tribal council position in 1893.

I don't know that there was ever consensus about the Freedmen among the Cherokee nation's members. But the mood about Freedmen took a turn in the 1970s. BIA benefits - health care, car registration, etc. - came in, and Cherokees including Freedmen could take advantage of that. Some Cherokees didn't like that. Wilma Mankiller's predecessor turned freedmen's descendants away from polls in 1983.

Nowhere in her obit is it mentioned that Wilma Mankiller, upon getting into office in 1984, promoted and adopted legislation requiring a certificate of Cherokee blood for citizenship. That action disenfranchised hundreds of active and interested descendants of Cherokee Freedmen.

In some circles, like congressional Black Caucus ones, that act was interpreted as racism, straight up. One California congresswoman, Diane Watson, has tried to intervene on behalf of the descendants of Freedmen. In the summer of 2007, she introduced HR 2824 seeking to hold the Cherokees to the Treaty of 1866, which she says would mean the inclusion of Freedmen's descendants. Cherokees would have lost federal status and $300 million in funding; the bill went nowhere.

Lost in all of this, of course, is the fact that Cherokee tradition and practice is hardly the same thing as citizenship. And neither of those things is blood. I met a full-blooded Cherokee who suggested that anyone with mixed ancestry wasn't a real Cherokee. I met black descendants of Cherokee Freedmen who could speak Cherokee and had attended stomps. I met a blue-eyed blonde Cherokee (1/1024th, enough to satisfy the "one drop" rule) whose Cherokee practice consisted of turquoise jewelry and Bible-inflected portraits of cowboys and Native Americans. And I met a dozen more people in between. Everywhere I went, people were confronting questions of identity, of what it means to be a nation, a tribe. Questions that touch on race, on how to understand the native nations moved around by the U.S. government, on what all these identifying words mean. And everyone's answer was a little different.

Wilma Mankiller is remembered as a feminist icon in some circles, and today, she was by Janice Hahn. Mankiller developed plenty of community projects. She presided over the Cherokee Nation during years when tribal self-determinism was on the rise. But without remembering that she redefined membership, cutting out, as the New York Times estimates, as many as 25,000 people, her legacy is incomplete.