Skip to main content

Political cost of Cherokee stance on freedmen continues to mount

WASHINGTON - Thirty-five members of the Congressional Black Caucus have informed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that they will actively oppose reauthorization of the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Assistance Act unless it cuts off funding to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, pending the nation's recognition of Cherokee freedmen and their descendants as tribal citizens.

The freedmen are descendants of slaves and free blacks who lived among the Cherokee before, during and after the Civil War. The Cherokee, a slave-owning tribe from its origins in the Southeast, sided with the Confederacy at the outset of the Civil War, later switching its allegiance to the Union. An 1866 treaty renewed federal relations with the Cherokee and conferred all rights of native Cherokees on the freedmen and their descendants. U.S. District Court Judge Henry H. Kennedy has found that the Cherokee soon began to marginalize the freedmen; and in 2003, not for the first time, the tribe tried to expel them through changes to its constitution.

The ultimate disposition of the case is still in doubt. But increasingly, Congress is not.

The NAHASDA bill, H.R. 2786 in the House of Representatives, has passed in that chamber, and a Senate counterpart, S. 2062, is on the legislative calendar. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the Financial Services Committee in the House, maintains that it will not become law without the provision against Cherokee funding. Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., and a member of Financial Services, has called for a reality check on the Cherokee, after initially holding out hope of a rapprochement.

A hard-fought bill to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the top priority of the National Congress of American Indians in the current 110th Congress, has passed the full Senate (as S. 1200) and the House Natural Resources Committee (as H.R. 1328). But Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., and others in the House have signaled intentions to amend the bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee, with a similar provision forbidding Cherokee funding over the freedmen. Both Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means, the third House committee with jurisdiction over the bill, have until June 6 to consider H.R. 1328.

Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., continues to push a bill that would sever federal relations with the Cherokee and revoke their casino charter until the freedmen are restored to full citizenship. Her bill, H.R. 2824 in the House, has 24 co-sponsors and she hopes to hold public hearings on it yet this year.

In a mid-April letter to tribal leaders, National American Indian Housing Council Chairman Marty Shuravloff wrote, ''The NAIHC is very concerned that the Freedmen matter might upend not only the pending NAHASDA reauthorization but the passage of all Indian tribal legislation in this and possibly future congresses. This would be an unfortunate outcome for the hundreds of thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native low income families that would be unwitting victims in a controversy involving one Indian tribe.''