Please check the race box…

The Cherokee Nation — which allied itself with the Confederacy during the Civil War — held black slaves until 1866, when they abolished slavery under a treaty with the United States. (Question for the Indian law gurus of the blogosphere: Would the 13th Amendment have abolished slavery among Indian tribes without the treaty?) As with white slave owners, there was more than a little genetic intermingling (to use a clinical phrase) between slaves and slave owners. Now that the tribe if flush with casino cash, the question arises whether or not black decedents of Cherokee slaves can claim a share in the tribe’s gambling revenue. The courts have not been friendly to the claims, so, according to this story in Wired, those denied membership in the tribe are turning to geneticists and genealogists. This is where it gets complicated. Most African-American’s have some nominal percentage of Native-American DNA. Also, most African-Americans have a fair amount of Caucasian DNA. Finally, just to make things extra complicated, many Cherokees — today and in the 19th century — also had substantial Caucasian DNA. Hence, a modern-day black Oklahoman claiming Cherokee status on the basis of family tradition may show nothing more than the background level of DNA for Native Americans, but the Caucasian DNA that he shows may have come into his bloodline via an ancestral Cherokee owner or an ancestral white owner. The whole complicated problem is a wonderful illustration of just what a mushy concept race becomes when you push on it too hard and the strange disputes that result when government largess gets doled out on the basis of “race.”

I will leave to Kaimi the question of whether or not descendants of Cherokee slaves who cannot gain admission to the tribe, may nevertheless sue the tribe for reparations.

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