TULSA, Okla. (AP) – The Cherokee Nation’s attorney general said it’s likely the Tahlequah-based tribe will appeal a decision about its historical status made by the new head of the BIA.
In a letter, BIA head Larry EchoHawk said the tribe was not the historical Cherokee tribe, which he said no longer exists as a distinct political entity.
That decision essentially put the Cherokee Nation and the smaller United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees, also based in Tahlequah, on equal footing concerning authority over the jurisdictional area of the historical Cherokee tribe.
The letter called both tribes “successors in interest” and said they were descended from the historical Cherokee Nation, but that neither was the original tribe.
“There is no reason, on the face of the (1946 Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act), that the Keetoowah Band would have less authority than any other band or tribe,” EchoHawk wrote.
The United Keetoowah Band long has wanted to place land into trust, something the decision did not do. The UKB has declined to make further comment on EchoHawk’s decision, but the Cherokee Nation has been vocal in its opposition.
“Although the letter has no legal effect right now, obviously, it had very damaging hyperbole in it,” Cherokee Nation Attorney General Diane Hammons said. “We intend to exercise every legal right we have to correct that. We will appeal as soon as we legally can. We’ll take every legal and political remedy available to us.
“This is very important to us even though it has no legal effect at this time.”
Cherokee Nation spokesman Mike Miller said EchoHawk’s comments reflected a reversal of previous policy, because previous BIA attorneys have argued that the Cherokee Nation is the historical tribe.
Miller said the tribe would like to know who advised EchoHawk concerning the issue.
Being able to place land in a trust is key to tribal gaming operations and other issues of tribal sovereignty. EchoHawk’s decision noted that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Rhode Island case limited the ability to place land into a trust to tribes listed on the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.
EchoHawk’s letter also noted that UKB efforts to place land into trust could have national consequences.
EchoHawk’s decision could have an effect on how the BIA deals with the Cherokee Nation, the UKB and other tribes, said Stacy Leeds, a law professor who directs the University of Kansas’ Tribal Law and Government Center.
“It’s a decision about land into trust,” said Leeds, a Cherokee Nation member who once served on the tribe’s Supreme Court. “It’s certainly a good decision from the UKB’s perspective. From the Cherokee Nation perspective, it raises questions. It’s legally binding as to whether the UKB can have land in trust.”
Leeds said that tribes outside Oklahoma are interested in the decision because “it’s making a statement about reorganized tribes in this century and opining that they’re not necessarily the historic nations that the treaties are with.”
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