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Cherokee adopts Baker Roll list as basis for tribal membership

Blood quantum. Even on their own, the words have a ceremonial, reverent ring to them.

For Cherokee tribal members, reality bears out the ring. Blood quantum — the fraction of one’s ancestry that is purely Cherokee — decides everything from a person’s ability to own land in the Qualla Boundary to availability of scholarships for college to eligibility to receive a share in casino profits each year.

So it’s probably understandable that Cherokee Tribal Council’s vote last month on how blood quantum should be determined was fraught with emotion and heated debate. In fact, Councilmember David Wolfe of Yellowhill kicked off the debate with a move that the discussion happen off-air from live cable broadcast to keep “outsiders” from seeing it. 

Tribal members in the audience made it clear they did not concur, and the meeting stayed on-air after Wolfe withdrew his motion. 

“My opinion is everybody needs to see this. Everybody needs to hear this,” said enrolled member Janet Arch. “Everybody needs to see where people stand on this opinion.”

After nearly two hours of discussion, members finally made a decision: To adopt the 1924 Baker Roll as “the foundation on which all enrollment decisions are made.” The Baker Roll “shall not be subject to challenge or amendment as to the information contained therein,” the legislation continued.

The Baker Roll is nothing new to Cherokee. Compiled in 1924, it’s already the Enrollment Committee’s main tool to decide whether a person meets the one-sixteenth threshold required to be considered Cherokee. Fred A. Baker, a non-Cherokee, had spearheaded the roll-making effort after Congress established the Eastern Cherokee Enrolling Commission. 

The Commission used old rolls and tribal censuses as well as a variety of other records to arrive at its final roll, which includes information such as names, ages, degree of Indian blood and family relationships of people living on the reservation in the 1920s. Modern-day Cherokee can trace their heritage back to someone named on the roll, and by looking at who a person’s parents are and their relationship to people listed on the Baker Roll, it’s possible to determine the blood quantum of a child born today. 

 

A flawed tool

The Baker Roll is a frequently used tool in Cherokee, but it’s not infallible. In 2010, the tribe paid out nearly a million dollars for an audit of its membership, with the goal of identifying people who did not actually qualify as tribal members because of either inaccuracies in the Baker Roll or other mistakes along the way. 

There were issues with the audit — “We didn’t receive proper audit results,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks — and nobody was disenrolled as a result. Tribal staff is now working on completing an audit internally, and councilmembers are looking into the possibility of legal action against the audit company.

The legislation’s assertion that the Baker Roll should be presumed accurate and above challenge raised ire from some audience and council members. 

“There are numerical errors in there that make most of us less, a lot of us more,” said Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove. “It’s improper, it’s immoral that I would have anyone in authority stand in front of us and tell my people that they’ve got to take a broken document.”

Determining a person’s blood quantum involves adding that of their parents and dividing by two. For instance, if two people who were half Cherokee got married, their children would also be half, because one-half plus one-half is one, and one divided by two is one-half. 

But the Baker Roll contains some mistakes in the math. For instance, one page lists a family with a husband and wife who are both full Cherokee. Their children would also be full Cherokee, but the roll lists them as eleven-sixteenths. On the same page, the children of a man who is one-fourth Cherokee and a woman who is three-eighths are listed as five-eighths, when the correct amount would be five-sixteenths. 

Those aren’t new discoveries. In 1933, Tribal Council passed a resolution asking Congress to “purge the rolls” of the approximately 1,100 people whose inclusion was protested at the time. 

“These people have never been recognized by the tribe and have never associated with or affiliated themselves with this Band of Indians, only setting up their contentions when they saw an opportunity to gain something thereby,” the resolution reads. 

Even a flip through the roll itself, now sold as a spiralbound book retailing for $40, reveals entire columns of names marked “contested.”

“We were forced to put them on that roll anyway, because you know why? It wasn’t our roll,” McCoy said. “We couldn’t say no. We got what was given to us, and it was wrong.”

 

Where to start? 

Baker got it wrong, McCoy said, and Cherokee would do itself a favor to trash the whole thing and develop a Cherokee roll created by Cherokee people. 

That sentiment is all well and good, other councilmembers said, but many, many years have passed since Cherokee people first began intermarrying with non-Indians. 

“You can’t go back and question somebody that lived in 1850 or 1875,” said Councilmember Perry Shell, of Big Cove, and that leaves Cherokee in a quandary. You have to start somewhere in determining a person’s tribal membership, and imperfect as it is, the Baker Roll is the best place to begin. 

“Do we start a new roll saying everybody here is full-blood going forward?” said Councilmember Gene “Tunni” Crowe, of Birdtown, who also chairs the enrollment committee. “We’re not going to do that. But answer me that question: Where do we start at?”

“Yeah, there are mistakes,” said Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird, but the reality is “that’s all we got.”

Sure, said tribal member Louise Reed, of Snowbird, but that’s no reason to pass a law saying that no part of the Baker Roll can be contested, that every letter must be taken as gospel. 

“This book needs to be used as a working tool, not a base roll,” Reed said. 

Overall, audience members expressed a desire to simply see the truth reflected in the list of modern tribal members. 

“Get it over with and let’s all line up,” said tribal member David Jumper. “Let’s all line up and get our fingers poked, and we’ll see who is and who’s not.”

Jumper was not the only person in the council chambers to suggest that everyone undergo a DNA test to settle the enrollment debate. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. DNA tests can determine whether a person has Native American ancestry but can’t prove which tribe or how much, according to the Association on American Indian Affairs website.

While blood quantum provides access to the perks and rights of being a tribal member, other audience members pointed out, being Cherokee is about more than that. Blood is an important part of what makes someone Cherokee, but it’s important that the other components of being Cherokee — culture, values — aren’t sacrificed while trying to prove its quantity. 

“When did our people become so concerned about being Cherokee because of the benefits, not being proud of our culture, our heritage, our people?” said Samantha Reed, a college student. “That’s where it should be from. I’d be perfectly fine if I got kicked off the roll or if I didn’t get a per cap or if I didn’t get help paying for college. I would find a way to do it.”

When the roll is untrustworthy, added tribal member Shirley Hubbard, it leads to fault lines in the community. 

“When you look at me, you see a white woman,” Hubbard said, and because of the issues with the Baker Roll, “I have to live with people doubting who I am.” 

 

A split vote

Council members were divided on the issue. Some, like Chairwoman Terri Henry, of Painttown, said council shouldn’t be voting on it at all.

“I believe that this issue is bigger than this body, and I believe that our people should have the right to say what they want to be the base roll,” Henry said in support of a referendum vote. 

But no referendum question had been drafted, so council had to vote either for or against the resolution before them. 

Crowe, Wolfe, Alan “B” Ensley of Yellowhill, Albert Rose of Birdtown, Tommeye Saunooke of Painttown and Bill Taylor of Wolfetown formed the majority vote in favor of adopting the Baker Roll, while Henry, McCoy, Brandon Jones of Snowbird and Bo Crowe of Wolfetown voted against it. Wachacha and Shell abstained. 

Reaction to the vote was decidedly negative. 

“You cannot call this a base roll and be legitimate, so I don’t know what y’uns gonna do with this information,” tribal member Amy Walker told council, “but to me it’s a horrible decision.”

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