The controversy enveloping the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and Cherokee freedmen recently has taken some interesting and unexpected turns. Americans, through the prism of this situation, are growing comfortable discussing Indian issues in dangerous terms of race and exclusion. The Cherokee leadership is entering a public relations fray potentially more volatile than a classic legal battle. The nation, amid salacious charges of ethnic cleansing, is steadfastly repeating its intention regarding a March vote to amend its enrollment policy, essentially denying freedmen without Indian ancestry citizenship within the nation. Time will tell if tribal sovereignty will trump race-baiting disguised as civil rights advocacy.
The nation's congressional adversary, Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., in June introduced a rather paternalistic bill to sever federal relations with the Cherokees of Oklahoma until it ''restores full tribal citizenship to the Cherokee freedmen disenfranchised in the March 3 Cherokee Nation vote and fulfills all its treaty obligations with the Government of the United States.'' H.R. 2824 would cut federal funding to the Cherokees and restrict the nation's authority to operate its gaming facilities.
Watson embarked on a publicity tour to promote the bill's virtues with town hall meetings co-sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congressional Black Caucus. At a Tulsa library, Watson characterized the controversy as the ''most significant civil rights movement of this century.'' Not to diminish the freedmen's plight, but most Americans would probably point to the Bush administration's domestic spying program as the biggest threat to civil rights in this 7-year-old 21st century.
The hyperbole didn't end there. Watson was accompanied - at the library - by U.S. Capitol police officers and proceeded to admonish an Indian nation for allegedly violating treaty obligations. ''The law says we can't use U.S. dollars to violate the law,'' she said in Tulsa. ''American money can't be used to discriminate.'' Watson was likely alluding to the outdated stereotype of the non-taxpaying, ward-of-the-state Indian. It is both disconcerting and comforting to know that hypocrisy is the basis of Watson's misguided crusade.
It is clear that comprehension of federal Indian law, based upon treaty relations between Indian sovereign nations and the U.S. government, is not the forte of Rep. Watson or her supporters. It is considered unwise for an agent of the federal government to lecture Indian nations about violating treaties, for paternalism directed at tribal authorities in the recent past has resulted in grave consequences for Indian peoples.
The Canandaigua Treaty of 1794 has been violated numerous times by the federal government. Article III of the treaty states, ''Now, the United States acknowledge all the land within the aforementioned boundaries, to be the property of the Seneca Nation; and the United States will never claim the same, nor disturb the Seneca Nation, nor any of the Six Nations ...'' Seneca leader Cornplanter, among those representing the Iroquois Confederacy, signed on behalf of his nation.
In 1965, fewer than three generations after its signing, the covenant was broken with the completion of the Kinzua Dam by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The dam flooded some 10,000 acres of Seneca land confiscated by eminent domain in western New York. The flood inundated the habitable lands of Cornplanter's descendants, and more 100 Seneca families on the Alleghany Reservation were forced to relocate their longhouse, homes and schools. Nearly 1,500 graves, including that of chief Cornplanter, had to be moved or be engulfed by the reservoir, known today by the Senecas as Lake Perfidy.
The Senecas drew support at the time from other Indian nations as well as the National Congress of American Indians, but not the larger American civil rights movement. Defending tribal self-governance and fighting forced assimilation, American Indians were not interested in solutions based on racial equality, distinguishing its goals from that of the black civil rights movement. That significant distinction is at the heart of the Cherokee Nation-Cherokee freedmen conflict. The Watson bill is a solution that will not serve anyone justly, as forced termination will endanger the benefits of all Cherokee citizens, including freedmen and their descendants.
Rep. Watson, leading the call for termination of the Cherokee Nation, claimed on National Public Radio's ''News & Notes'' to have ''Indian blood'' and that she is a descendant of Pocahontas. Her concern with Indian civil and human rights is encouraging. Watson could use her influence in Congress to fight unequal religious freedom; reduce violent crimes against Indian women and children; encourage funding for Indian health services, law enforcement and education; or fight discrimination against Indians in nearly every sector of American culture, from sports to housing to the workplace.
In the Indian world, it is said that aside from tribal enrollment or documented proof of citizenship, it is indicative of one's identity as an Indian person if you consider yourself part of something rather than part-something. As a vocal proponent for the freedmen, Watson should realize that their strongest claim to full Cherokee citizenship lies in their family and community ties to the nation. These tangible bonds matter just as much as Watson's notions of indiscernible Indian-ness by blood.