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Housing amendment would punish Cherokee over freedmen

WASHINGTON -- The Financial Services Committee in the House of Representatives proved as good as its word July 26, approving an amendment to a tribal housing loan guarantee bill that prohibits the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma from participating until it fully recognizes all Cherokee freedmen as tribal citizens.

Cherokee freedmen are the descendants of slaves and free blacks kept by the Cherokee in the 19th century. The Cherokee citizenship expelled the Cherokee freedmen from the tribe in March, in a vote nullified by a BIA administrative decision. The freedmen remain Cherokee citizens pending court actions. But a staff person for a lawmaker in the Congressional Black Caucus, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the volatility of the freedmen issue, said they are only "provisional" citizens.

Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., pledged at a previous hearing that the committee would address the freedmen issue once it could find a way to do so without penalizing all of Indian country along with the Cherokee. The July 26 amendment was clearly a fulfillment of Frank's pledge.

The bill proper, H.R. 3002 in the House, originated by Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Frank, Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Dale Kildee of Michigan, as well as Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., is of the first importance in its own right. It amounts to a demonstration project for federal guarantees of repayment to purchasers of notes and bonds ("obligations" in the parlance of investment finance) issued by tribes and tribally designated housing entities to finance housing-related infrastructure, long one of the dire needs in Indian communities. The guarantees are capped at $1 billion, or $200,000 annually between fiscal years 2008 and 2012. At least 70 percent of the guaranteed obligations must be for the benefit of low-income Indian families on reservations or in tribal jurisdiction areas. At the end of that period, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development would report on the program, with the expectation that Congress will act accordingly to either maintain the program or let it expire, depending on its track record.

The Cherokee-specific amendment, offered by Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., reads as follows: "No funds appropriated under this bill shall be expended for the benefit of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma until the Secretary [of Housing and Urban Development] shall have certified to Congress that the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is in full compliance with the Treaty of 1866 and fully recognizes all Cherokee Freedmen and their descendants as citizens of the Cherokee Nation."

H.R. 3002 and its Cherokee-specific amendment could go to the floor for a vote of the full House before the traditional August recess of Congress, beginning Aug. 3, according to the anonymous staff member quoted above.

At the previous committee hearing, Watt expressed optimism that talks between freedmen and Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma representatives were entering a phase that made resolution conceivable without congressional action. On July 27, Corey Little of his press staff said, "The amendment suggests that things have broken down to a degree."

Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Chad Smith was in Washington July 26. He issued a statement expressing the nation's disappointment with the amendment.

"The Cherokee Nation has taken every step to bring this matter to a just and equitable solution, but the fact remains that the Cherokee Nation is being singled out for an enrollment policy that we share with more than 500 other Indian tribes: you have to have an Indian ancestor on our base rolls to be a citizen. You have to have Indian ancestry to be in an Indian tribe.

"This issue, which is currently in the courts, has never been about race. Thousands of African-Americans, including more than 1,500 descendants of slaves, are Cherokee citizens because they also have Indian ancestors. Our fundamental principle is that you have to be an Indian to be in an Indian tribe. Even so, the Cherokee Nation currently allows citizenship to non-Indian freedmen descendants pending their tribal court appeals.

"This amendment hurts the very people it claims to be helping, because it denies services to non-Indian freedmen descendants, who are citizens of the Cherokee Nation today, but will suffer along with Indian citizens if funding is cut. Cutting off access to this program only denies opportunities for quality housing to low-income citizens, including the elderly and handicapped. We have fully complied with the 1866 treaty and we'd like to see the United States comply with it, too."

Since the freedmen issue began to draw international attention, Smith has not publicly elaborated in detail on the Cherokee interpretation of the 1866 treaty. But in Washington July 7, as part of the Live Earth day festivities at the National Museum of the American Indian, he repeatedly cautioned that the history of those times, and of the Cherokee-freedmen relationship, is too complicated to be appreciated properly through the prism of race.

Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and sponsor of a separate bill to sever federal relations with the Cherokee, commended the committee's adoption of the Watt amendment. In a prepared statement, she termed the freedmen disenrollment "a fundamental injustice that must not go unchecked."

The Watt amendment will not be seen as "punishment enough" on Capitol Hill, according to a Washington professional of long standing in Indian affairs, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the racial sensitivity surrounding the freedmen issue. In other words, Watson's much harsher bill, H.R. 2824 in the House, will not lose steam because of the Watt amendment, he said, adding, "They're really mad about this, the CBC."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Congress of Black Women, in addition to 21 co-sponsors in the House, have endorsed H.R. 2824. Among the co-sponsors is Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Watson's bill is currently awaiting action before the Judiciary Committee.