Congresswoman seeks to sever U.S. relations with Cherokees 6-21-07

- Rep. Diane Watson introduced legislation Thursday to cut millions of dollars in federal funding to the Cherokee Nation over its vote ending tribal membership for many descendants of former slaves.

The tribe decided on March 3 to limit Cherokee citizenship to descendants of “by blood” tribal members.

Results of the election are on hold pending a legal challenge, but if the results stand, about 2,800 descendants of the tribe's former black slaves, also called freedmen, would be removed from the tribe. They would lose tribal benefits, including medical coverage.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith said the Tahlequah-based tribe has a sovereign right to determine membership.

“The Cherokee Nation simply wants to be an Indian tribe composed of Indians,” Smith said in a statement. “The introduction of this bill is really a misguided attempt to deliberately harm the Cherokee Nation in retaliation for this fundamental principle that is shared by more than 500 other Indian tribes.”

Watson, D-Calif., said the vote violated a treaty the tribe signed with the U.S. government in 1866. She said that until the Cherokees comply with the treaty, federal funding of an estimated $300 million a year should be cut and the tribe's authority to conduct gaming operations should be suspended.

“The Treaty of 1866 states unequivocally that the freedmen are citizens of the Cherokee Nation and have all the rights of Cherokees,” she said in a statement. “It particularly pains me, over forty years after the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act, that legislation has to be introduced to compel the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma to recognize the basic civil rights of the Cherokee freedmen.

“The Cherokee Nation's leadership claims that it has the sovereign right to determine who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. But the sovereign right to discriminate is no right at all.”

Two Oklahoma congressmen, Republican Tom Cole and Democrat Dan Boren, have said that Watson's legislation should wait until after the courts have resolved the issue.

Smith said the tribe wants to limit tribal membership to descendants of Indians on the tribe's base census role. He said there are 1,500 descendants of slaves who were unaffected by the March 3 vote because they also have an Indian ancestor on the census role.

“Given the facts, we anticipate this latest attempt to harm the Cherokee Nation will be as unsuccessful as previous ones, as Congress takes the time to understand the issues,” Smith said.