Patrick G. Barkman

As you all know, I’m working on quite a big project about Native Americans. I sincerely believe that they still are mainly neglected: they have a rich culture, a rich – and sad – history and, today, many of them live in poverty. Their story is one worth telling.

I wrote a post a few days ago, asking Native Americans to contact me in order to share their story. I got a couple of e-mails, one of them was from Patrick G. Barkman. Patrick told me that his family is Cherokee and that he would be more than willing to work with me on this project. We decided to do an interview and a guest post. Today, I’ll publish the interview. The guest post, about the Indian Wars and the Trail of Tears will follow later.

Patrick is an attorney and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist with a general law practice in his hometown of Cleburne, Texas. In 2002, he was unusuccessful candidate for the Texas State House of Represenatives. He is married and has two sons. He is also a blogger: go check his blog out here.

Could you give a brief summary of your family’s history?
P.B.: My maternal great grandmother’s mother, Susan Wood, was born in Arkansas (or possibly Indian Territory) in 1855. It is possible that her family were Old Settlers, Cherokee who emigrated west before the Trail of Tears. In 1877, she married a white man from Texas who she likely met as he passed through Indian Territory on a cattle drive. They settled in Central Texas and had 11 children, the youngest of whom was my maternal great grandmother, Nellie Tippie (known to everyone as Granny). Susan Wood died in 1899 and the family more or less disentigrated, some of the adult children drifted to Indian Territory and likely settled in with relatives. Nellie was raised by a number of white families and spent the rest of her life here. She recently died just a few months short of her 106th birthday.

How does your family’s history, thus you being Cherokee, influence your every day life?
P.B.: Every day I give thanks that I was born Cherokee. Since most of my family has lost their culture, I try to set aside some time every day to study the language, history or culture of my people. My youngest son particulalry enjoys having me read traditional stories to him.

In what way did and does Cherokee culture differ from other tribes’ culture?
P.B.: For one thing, the Cherokee were matrillineal, tracing all descent and inheritence through the mother. Wives owned all property and always kept custody of the children in the event of divorce. Women also had a structural role in running the government, including during times of war. Even today, many Cherokee families have a matriarch who is seen as the “head” of the family.

Why is it that the Cherokee have historically been better assimilated than most other tribes?
P.B.: The Cherokee traditionally adapted well to changing circumstances, plus in the decades before the Trial of Tears they had leaders like Major Ridge who believed adapted white culture was the best way to ensure the survival of the tribe.

Flag of Cherokee Nation

What is Cherokee Nation exactly and what role does it play in the lives of Cherokee?
P.B.: There are three federall recognized Cherokee tribal governments–the Cherokee Nation, located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, is the largest and traces its history to the first constitution ratified after the Trail of Tears in 1839. The Cherokee Nation has an executive government, headed by the principal chief, an elected tribal council, and a court system. It exercises jurisdiction over 14 counties in Northeastern Oklahoma. The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians is also located in Tahlequah. It is a smaller group, more traditional, and contains many native Cherokee speakers. The two governments frequently clash over sovereignty issues. The third Cherokee group is the Eastern Band, located in the mountains of North Carolina and comprised of Cherokee who managed to avoid the Trail of Tears.

Do you consider yourself to be Cherokee first, and American second, or American first and Cherokee second?
P.B.: That’s a hard question, but I would have to say American first.

Are there still a lot of hard feelings within the Cherokee community toward America / the American government?
P.B.: For some, yes. For example, since Andrew Jackson was the President during the Trail of Tears, you can sometimes find his portrait on $20 bills defaced in parts of Oklahoma. On the other hand, Cherokee have fought for the United States in every war since the War of 1812.

There is a lot of controversy within Cherokee Nation regarding the so-called “Freedmen”. Who are they and what’s the controversy all about?
P.B.: Before the Trial of Tears, many Cherokee had assimillated into white culture. Since they were in the South, this included plantation economics and slavery. One Cherokee, James Vann, was actually the richest man in George, with a large brick house, hundreds of acres and hundreds of slaves. During the removal, most Cherokee brought their slaves with them and continued to keep them until after the Civil War. Cherokee fought for both the North and the South, but in the end, the tribe was treated like the defeated Confederates. A treaty imposed in 1866 required the Cherokee to not only free all slaves, but make them members of the tribe. Many of the slaves intermarried with Cherokee. In 1896-1907, the Dawes Commission tried to break up the Cherokee Nation and allot individual plots of land to individual Indians, with the “surplus” being then opened to white settlers. The so-called Dawes Rolls are really a mess, incredibly inaccurate. The names are frequently wrong, because some Indians objected to being forced to give “English” names. The blood quanta listing is usually wrong, because if an Indian claimed he was a “full blood,” he was considered incompetent and the land would be held in trust for him by the federal government. The Freedmen were listed, but were not given a blood quanta rating due to the prevailing racist belief at the time that “one drop” of “negro blood” made you a “negro.” In fact, the whole idea of blood quantum or “Indian blood” is a racist invention of whites that has no precedent in Indian history or culture. ohn Ross, the greatest chief in modern Cherokee history, was only 1/8th! For decades after the Dawes Rolls, the Freedmen descendents were considered members of the tribe. Some even served on the Tribal Council. When a new constitution was adopted in 1975, the tribe stopped enrolling Freedmen, on the grounds that they weren’t “Indians by blood.” This was challenged in the courts and last year the Cherokee Supreme Court ruled that the tribe had to allow Freedmen descendents to enroll as full tribal members. A petition (which was riddled with fraud and inaccuracy) was circulated and now a vote is scheduled to limit tribal membership to those who can “prove” that they have “Indian blood.” Of course, this is a Catch 22 for the Freedmen descendents, since they weren’t allowed to list their “Indian blood” on the Dawes Roll in the first place.

Is that attitude based on racism, pride, economics or something else?
P.B.: That’s a hard question to answer. It’s not money; the Cherokee Nation makes enough off casino gambling to pay for services, but nobody gets a rebate check as with some other smaller tribes that have periodically tried to kick out members. Yes, it would put a strain on the nation to absorb as many as 10,000 (by some estimates) new citizens, but they would also be contributing to the nation. I don’t want to believe the exclusionists (led by Principal Chief Chad Smith) are motivated solely by racism but some of their comments (like saying the Freedman “haven’t contrubuted to the life of the nation”) make me wonder. The whole issue of “Indian blood” is very sensitive to many Indians, especially among Cherokee who have been intermarrying with whites (and blacks) for 200+ years. In fact, the Cherokee have kind of a reputation among other tribes for being “apples” (red on the outside, white on the inside).

Do Cherokee have ‘special days’ or feasts? If so, do you celebrate them and… how are they generally celebrated?
Cherokee Nation Day is celebrated on Labor Day Weekend and commemorates the ratification of the first post-Removal constitution. My family also observes the Green Corn Ceremony in late summer, early fall, which is a harvest festival that marks when the corn crop is first fit to eat. We also celebrate the Great New Moon ceremony, which is the Cherokee New Year. Of all the traditional holidays, the Green Corn Ceremony is probably the one most widely celebrated today.

Do you commemorate the Trial of Tears? If so, how?
Every year, the Cherokee Nation reenacts a portion of the Trail of Tears. I got to walk an actual section of the Trail in Arkansas with Principal Chief Chad Smith and about 200 others two years ago. It was very moving.

Are most Cherokee Christian, or they adhere to traditional Cherokee religion?
The overwhelming majority of Cherokee have been Christian, and mostly Southern Baptist, for nearly 200 years. There are still some traditionalists around.

What is the traditional Cherokee religion? Could you give a brief description?
Not many people remember the traditional ways. The Cherokee with polytheistic and spiritualist. Even among those who don’t practice the old ways exclusively, it’s not uncommon to refer to plants and animals the same way you would to human beings.

What has – in your opinion – been the worst policy toward Native Americans in U.S. history, and what has been the best one?
The worst policy? All of them. From the Cherokee perspective, that would easily be the Trail of Tears, followed by the policy of Termination in the 1950’s, when the federal gov’t tried to forcibly disband tribal governments and give away their assets. Some tribes have been fighting 50 years to recreate themselves through the court system. One of the better policy proposals was one during the New Deal Era, when the government proposed to hand over federal lands to the tribes to administer. It didn’t get very far before WWII. President Gerald Ford signed into law the Indian Health Service that helped hundreds of thousands of Indians get access to health care for the first time in their lives.

What is the economical situation of Cherokee Nation / the Cherokee people (compared to that of other tribes)?
The Cherokee Nation is self-sufficient. It runs a school system, the Tribal Marshall Service, various health clinics and services for the elderly.

Can you explain that?
The Cherokee Nation is in rural Oklahoma, but not nearly as isolated as other tribes further west. Tahlequah is pretty close to big cities like Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Also, the Cherokee have been very aggressive in expanding operations like Cherokee Nations Industries and casino operations.

Native Americans tend to live in (extremely) poor conditions: from all minority groups their suicide rates, unemployment rates, high school dropout rates, etc. etc. are the highest. How can this situation be changed and in how far can the US government do something about it and in how far is it in their own hands?
The best thing the federal gov’t could do would be to turn over public lands back to the tribal governments. If, for example, the Lakota could run the Blacks Hills National Park, the income from tourism and mining alone could help drag those reservations out of poverty. The federal gov’t should also get serious about paying off the billions of dollars in Indian trust fund money that it cannot account for.

I would like to thank Patrick for this interview. It has been incredibly interesting to work with a Cherokee on this. Part 2 of Chapter 1, again, will be published as soon as possible.

Lastly, I would also like to repeat my request: if you’re (partly) Native American and would like to share your story and your views, please send me an e-mail.

Commenter C. Stanley links to websites about the history of the Cherokee in the area she lives.

Interesting reading material (and photos)
General history of Cherokee (predating the Trail of Tears)
New Echota, first capital of the Cherokee Nation
Photo page of New Echota historical site
Chief Vann House

Michael van der Galien
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