WASHINGTON – The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has released a letter indicating that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is withholding funds from the tribe in an apparent federal power play over tribal sovereignty.
Cherokee Nation Attorney General Diane Hammons has publicly released a letter sent last week from the tribe to HUD that says the tribe learned of the agency’s action when tribal officials tried to draw approximately $33 million from their HUD housing fund on August 31 and were blocked from doing so.
Hammons writes in the letter that HUD based its rationale on what she labels a “misinterpretation” of Section 801 of the 2008 reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA). That section deals with the Cherokee Freedmen and sought to limit HUD monies to the Cherokee Nation while litigation was pending centering on whether the Freedmen were tribal citizens.
The Freedmen, descendants of slaves once held by tribal citizens, have long argued that they should be granted full citizenship. But some tribal citizens, including some tribal leaders, have staunchly argued that it is appropriate for the tribe to deny them citizenship based on rules enforced by the tribal government. Federal beliefs on the matter should have no bearing, tribal officials have argued.
The latest court action involving the controversial issue came August 22 when the Cherokee Nation's Supreme Court upheld a previous voter-approved constitutional amendment requiring all of the tribe’s citizens to have at least one Indian ancestor on the federal Dawes Rolls. That decision resulted in nearly 3,000 Freedmen being kicked out of the tribe.
In response, Freedmen members filed suit in federal court last week seeking to establish their voting rights in the tribe in time for a tribal election for principal chief coming up later in September. In court documents, the Freedmen argue that the tribe violated a 145-year-old treaty when the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court restored the voter-approved amendment denying citizenship to non-Indian descendants of tribal citizens’ former black slaves. A hearing on the request has been scheduled for September 20.
Time is of the essence in the matter because the tribal court decision, if allowed to stand, would prevent the Freedmen from voting in a September 24 election between tribal councilman Bill John Baker, who is supported by the Freedmen, and former Principal Chief Chad Smith, who is largely not supported by the Freedmen. The tribal court in July threw out the results of a disputed June 25 election between Baker and Smith in which the Freedmen voted.
Regardless of whether the Freedmen are citizens or not, Hammons argues in the letter that the tribe followed the necessary legal pathway to secure HUD funding. She says, too, that Congress would have specifically limited funds to the Cherokee Nation if it intended to do so under the law.
HUD officials confirmed the denial of funds, issuing the following statement September 7: “HUD has suspended disbursements to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma while we seek additional guidance on an unclear statute involving the Freedmen. The funding can be restored once this issue is resolved.”
HUD’s decision to suspend millions of dollars in payment to a tribe based on an issue involving tribal sovereignty is widely controversial in Indian country. The concern is that federal agencies could create rules that would suspend payments to tribes based on other “unclear” interpretations of federal-tribal agreements.
“[T]he important thing to notice is the direct attack by the non-Indian freedmen descendants on the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation, asking for the termination of the tribe’s existence,” Hammons said in a statement, which supports the idea of tribal sovereignty being under attack.
Some federal lawmakers, meanwhile, agree with the decision to limit funding.
“I do not believe the federal government should continue to fund the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma if it is blatantly violating the rights of some members,” U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., wrote in a recent letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. The congressman asked Donovan to “act appropriately to prevent any funding from the federal government for tribal housing.”
Frank sent another letter to Larry Echo Hawk, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, asking that he “take appropriate action to protect the rights of the Cherokee Freedmen.” Echo Hawk has not publicly responded.
See ICTMN’s feature about the Freedmen issue, researched and developed last week and appearing in the September 21 Issue of the magazine here.