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Freedmen status at issue in Washington

WASHINGTON - In Oklahoma, Cherokee voters returned Principal Chief Chad Smith to office, and by a similarly wide margin approved a ballot measure canceling the BIA's authority to sign off on the tribe's constitution.

The world's eyes were on the June 23 votes because of the Cherokee freedmen, approximately 2,800 descendants of slaves kept by the Cherokee before the Civil War. After the war, in an 1866 treaty between the Cherokee and the federal government, the freedmen became tribal members. The Cherokee tried to vote them out of the tribe in March. The freedmen brought lawsuits in tribal and federal courts, and the BIA declined to validate the March results because the freedmen had not participated in the vote on an underlying change to the tribal constitution. The freedmen therefore remained tribal members.

But with freedmen permitted to vote June 23, tribal voters set up a showdown with the BIA by again eliminating its authority over the tribal constitution. To public knowledge, the tribe has not scheduled another vote on freedmen membership, but it has met the BIA's objection to its March vote ousting the freedmen.

Speculation on Capitol Hill, from a well-placed source asking for anonymity due to the racially charged nature of the freedmen issue, has it that the tribe may wait until the heat dies down to address the status of the freedmen, whose tribal citizenship the source considered ''provisional.''

In Washington, Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., continued to push a bill in the House of Representatives that would withdraw federal funding from the Cherokee, suspend the tribe's authority to operate a casino, and expose the tribe to freedmen lawsuits in nontribal court. Watson's bill has been referred to the Committee on Natural Resources and the Judiciary Committee, where the bill's backers hope that Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the Judiciary chairman, will schedule a hearing. Watson introduced the bill June 21 with backing from members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The caucus in its entirety has not endorsed the bill, though Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said June 26 that it had been introduced ''by members of the Congressional Black Caucus.''

Tribal reaction to Watson's bill was immediate. Already on June 21, a longtime Indian attorney at a tribal-practice law firm in Washington expressed outrage over a ''termination bill.'' By June 26, the National Congress of American Indians had weighed in. Quoted in a news release, President Joe Garcia described the bill in terms of termination all over again:

''This is an uncalled for response to a question of treaty interpretation. When Alabama or California takes an action inconsistent with Congressional views, there is no discussion of revoking their statehood. The attempt to revoke tribal nationhood is equally inappropriate. Not since the Termination Era of the 1950s, when the official policy of the federal government was complete destruction of indigenous peoples, have we seen such a piece of legislation. NCAI was founded to oppose termination of Indian tribes.''

Garcia left no doubt NCAI will oppose the dismantling of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma proposed in Watson's bill, H.R. 2824 in the House.

Also on June 26, a key member of the Congressional Black Caucus and outspoken foe of the freedmen expulsion, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., stood down from her uncompromising position of June 6, when she said at a subcommittee hearing that the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act reauthorization bill would not move until the Cherokee freedmen issue was resolved.

The issue is far from resolved, and as subcommittee chairman Waters could have been as good as her word. But member statements at a hearing of the full Financial Services Committee in the House left no doubt that Waters had decided against acting to the detriment of all Indian country because of the Cherokee. The full committee, of which the Waters subcommittee is a part, moved the bill and a number of Democratic

representatives - Dan Boren of Oklahoma, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Melvin Watt of North Carolina - praised Waters for keeping her eyes on the prize for Indian country too, as it were.

''But the issues raised by the Cherokees' treatment of the freedmen will not go away,'' she promised.

''Where tribal actions regarding membership are anchored upon dubious racial classifications that would violate hard-won civil rights laws in the United States, we've got a problem.''

Frank, the Financial Services chairman, also pledged to back Waters in addressing the freedmen issue in the future.

''The issue of the Cherokee and the race issue is a deeply troubling one. And I guess if we were dealing here with the Cherokee tribe alone, I don't think we would be going forward in the same way. But we are talking about legislation that affects all of the Native Americans, many, many other tribes, and the gentlewoman from California deserves a great deal of credit because this is obviously an issue which she, entirely correctly, feels very strongly that some injustice has been done, and we haven't yet figured out a way to deal with that without putting other people who should not be penalized into the mix. And what she's done is try to focus on the injustice without holding up a bill that's of importance to a range of others. But I intend to be fully supportive of her as she goes forward in trying to deal with this.

''We aren't finished yet with this piece of it. So we go forward with this bill because it does respond to the needs of all of the Native Americans. But this does not mean that any of us here are satisfied with the situation involving the Cherokees, and we will be revisiting that.''

Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, downplayed the appearance of conflict between the CBC and American Indians. She said the caucus as a whole hasn't endorsed the Watson bill, and added that Indian country counts some caucus members among its most constant supporters. ''I think that the Cherokee issue may have raised issues that were peripheral, but I don't think it's insurmountable at all.''