COMMENTARY: Curing what ails us

by Mar 28, 2022OPINIONS0 comments



One Feather Editor


Our heritage, benefits, and personal identity have long been wrapped up in a system that identifies us as enrolled members of a body of people. In an ironic twist of fate, we are identified as Cherokee due to our connection to a federal roll established in 1924.

“The final roll of the Eastern Cherokee, prepared by United States Agent Fred A. Baker, pursuant to an act of the 68th Congress, (43 stat., 376), June 4, 1924. Before preparation of this roll, the Act required that all land, money, and other property of the Tribe be transferred to the United States for final disposition. Termination of the Tribe as a government and political entity was the ultimate goal. After termination efforts failed, the Tribe continued to use the 1924 Baker Roll as its base roll. Descendants of those persons of the original Baker Roll are enrolled on the Baker Revised Roll, providing they meet the membership requirements of the Tribe.” (

Just over 3,000 names appear on the original Baker roll. From that lineage of “enrolled” members came the over 16,000 on our current tribal roll today. And all of us are enrolled members.

By this same system, the Baker Roll, we have also come to identify our race as Eastern Band Cherokee Indians. This is so because of the use of blood quantum to establish the “Indian-ness” of our people. Your blood quantum (if you are an enrolled member) is determined by calculating your blood relationship to an ancestor on the Baker roll. This is usually done by researching birth records and some by DNA research.

“All persons whose names appear on the roll of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, prepared and approved pursuant to the Act of June 4, 1924 (43 Stat. 376) and the Act of March 4, 1931 (46 Stat. 1518). This is the base roll of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and shall be known as the Baker Roll of 1924. It is the foundation on which all enrollment decisions are made and shall not be subject to challenge or amendment as to the information contained therein.” (Cherokee Code Section 49-2a)

Race and citizenship are intermingled further in our law. Making for very confusing discussions when it comes to the civil rights of individuals who are “enrolled members”.

“A tribal census, for the purposes of determining the weight of the votes to be cast by each Tribal Council member, shall be conducted prior to the 1981 tribal election and prior to the election each ten years thereafter to determine the number of enrolled members residing in each township” (Charter and Governing Document Section 19).

On a side note, our adherence to the governing document seems to be in line with a policy manual rather than an actual binding agreement between the governors and the governed. While there has been quite a bit of bloviation regarding the power of the Charter, our government has been accepting of disregarding tenets designed to empower the people; example, our governing body has not enforced the admonition of the Charter to conduct a tribal census since the turn of the millennium, in what appears to be a clear violation of tribal law.

In addition to the roll requirement, a blood quantum requirement is in effect for our people. To be an enrolled member, according to Cherokee Code in Section 49-2, the blood degree rules are that a person must have 1/16th blood connection (dependent on the documented blood quantum of the person on the roll so that a person seeking enrollment has a 16th of EBCI blood quantum) with a person listed on the federal Baker roll in order to be qualified to be an enrolled member. There is a caveat in the law to allow “All direct lineal descendants of persons identified in section 49-2a who were living on August 14, 1963; who possess at least 1/32 degree of Eastern Cherokee blood, who applied for membership prior to August 14, 1963, and have themselves or have parents who have maintained and dwelt in a home at sometime during the period from June 4, 1924, through August 14, 1963, on the lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in the Counties of Swain, Jackson, Graham, Cherokee, and Haywood in North Carolina.”

The Tribe authorized an $846,900 enrollment audit in May 2005. The Tribe contracted with the Falmouth Institute. The stated purpose or scope of work stated, “The Tribe has identified a need for a thorough and independent review of the Tribe’s enrollment records to determine: whether there are persons listed on the Tribal rolls who did not meet the legal requirements for enrollment when they were enrolled, and if accuracy and consistency of the Tribe’s enrollment records; to determine if there are deficiencies in the enrollment process; to identify improvements to the enrollment process and enrollment records (the “Work”); and to make other examinations, if any, described in the documents attached and incorporated into this agreement.” The “other documents” attached detailed a thorough review of process, recording, and remediation.

A preliminary report was generated by Falmouth which indicated that there were some irregularities, both in enrollment and in record keeping. The security of enrollment records seemed to be a chief concern, with programs unrelated to tribal enrollment allegedly finding or reporting enrollment documentation in areas that might not be considered as secure.

While some official discussion has occurred over the course of the nearly 17 years since the Tribe started their enrollment audit, no official reporting or outcomes have been issued to the Tribal community. There was some discussion that the Enrollment Committee may not have continued its relationship with Falmouth to an outcome or final report. There was also discussion that the Enrollment program would supposedly, at some point, finish the work. These were not official releases, but they were discussed in open sessions of Tribal Council.

Another side note, both census and enrollment irregularities impact the quality of life of Eastern Band Cherokee Indians tribal members. Like many other municipal systems, resources are allocated based on who is supposed to be serviced and where those who are supposed to be serviced reside. In the case of census, individual communities of the tribe are represented by two Tribal Council representatives. They vote for their communities based on a Charter-ordained weighted vote, which means their voting power or percentage is determined by where those who are to be served reside. And, if there are persons on the tribal roll who do not meet the criteria for being on the roll, obviously, this would directly impact the amount and distribution of resources to legitimately enrolled members.

It is unfortunate that we are locked in to identifying ourselves as enrolled members of our tribe (our Charter clearly identifies us as such). It is also unfortunate that we do not recognize the importance of citizenship in our tribe. A citizen is “a native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it” (Merriam-Webster).

As we have said a number of times, the governing document of our Tribe, the Charter, affords very limited civil rights for its “enrolled members”. As we have seen with the census, our government doesn’t necessarily have to abide by even the Charter. That is why it is so vitally important that our people engage in meaningful discussion about a tribal constitution; that we adopt a more potent law that recognizes our rights of race and citizenship in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. We need to also clear up and clean up our enrollment record and process.

Yet another side note: This is not an impeachment of persons. It is an indictment of process. The EBCI Enrollment Office staff do outstanding work with the resources that they are given. We have good people doing good work there. It is process that needs examination, update, and potentially correction. Our tribal leaders would not have authorized a tribe-wide enrollment audit at a cost of nearly a million dollars if there were no sign of a need. Regarding our Charter, our governors are working with an outdated and inadequate standard that does not provide the kind of guidance that a tribal nation must have. Our own Tribal Council has acknowledged the need for a tribal constitution through the formation and allocation of funds for a constitution committee that is in the final stages of input before requesting a referendum vote on the latest draft of a governing document to replace the Charter.

Many of the ailments of our Tribe are because we treat the symptoms of our issues on the Qualla Boundary and among the enrolled members of our Tribe instead of getting to the root cause or foundation. Citizenship is a foundational issue that, if correctly addressed, will cure a multitude of ills.