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Cherokee housing amendment may be at last stop

WASHINGTON - For months, Rep. Diane Watson and the Congressional Black Caucus have gotten all the attention on the Cherokee freedmen issue. The California Democrat has introduced a bill, H.R. 2824 in the House of Representatives, that would sever federal relations with the Cherokee of Oklahoma for a referendum vote of the tribe to, in effect, exclude the freedmen from membership.

With the backing of the caucus, amendments echoing the bill would penalize the Cherokee in the realms of health care and housing. Cherokee severance amendments now threaten the enactment of new health and housing law for all of Indian country.

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, its lobbyists and allies have mounted a campaign against Watson's bill, arguing in part that it would penalize a tribe for determining its own citizenship, a cornerstone of sovereignty. Watson's bill, and amendments echoing it, had been their obvious targets.

But upon the recent passage of a Senate bill reauthorizing the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Assistance Act, the freedmen-specific spotlight turns from Watson and the CBC to Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. After full debate and a pause in the legislative process for mediation efforts, the House version of the bill, H.R. 2786, emerged from the Financial Services Committee and passed the House with a provision that forbids housing funds to the Cherokee of Oklahoma under its provisions.

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The Senate version is silent on the Cherokee. A conference committee of House and Senate members must now convene to iron out differences between the two bills. But as chairman of a committee of original jurisdiction, Frank retains a key say in the bill's disposition.

According to several accounts on Capitol Hill, he remains firm that the amendment against Cherokee funding will not iron out in conference, and indeed that the bill will not emerge from conference without it.

''That's what I heard, and I guess it's true,'' said Christopher Boesen of Tiber Creek Associates in Washington, a veteran advocate of Indian housing. ''It's not new information, but that's all we've heard.''

Frank's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Pending court decisions, the freedmen remain tribal citizens as descendants of slaves and free blacks who lived among the Cherokee, most of them belonging to individual tribal members, before and during the Civil War.