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Watson bill over freedmen could fall hard on Cherokee if compromise cannot be reached

Analysis

WASHINGTON - Rep. Diane Watson introduced a bill on June 21 in the House of Representatives to sever federal relations with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, following the tribe's failure to find a compromise on its treatment of freedmen members that satisfied the Congressional Black Caucus.

Watson and Rep. Maxine Waters, both D-Calif., are influential caucus members. They had given the tribe a week to reach a compromise on the Cherokee freedmen.

The outlines of every compromise under discussion couldn't be confirmed from background sources, the only ones willing to speak for the record, though anonymously, on one of the most charged of current issues in Washington. But one measure that has been discussed on Capitol Hill is for Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, to approach Congress for recognition of the freedmen as a separate tribe, a process that can take years under the most ordinary circumstances.

But outrage at the Cherokee has grown at a much greater pace since they expelled their freedmen members in a March vote that aroused international interest, and nowhere on Capitol Hill has it grown more than within the Congressional Black Caucus. The so-called 'dear colleague' letter to other congressional members that Watson circulated as a companion to her bill states that the Cherokee are pursuing ''the sovereign right to discriminate,'' which she called ''no right at all.''

Watson's bill would pull approximately $300 million in federal funding from the Cherokee, suspend its gaming operations, and waive its sovereignty so that the freedmen could sue the tribe in court - all this ''until such time as the Cherokee Nation restores full tribal citizenship to the Cherokee Freedmen,'' she states in her letter to colleagues.

As quoted in a media release, she added, ''The Treaty of 1866 states unequivocally that the freedmen are citizens of the Cherokee Nation and have all the rights of Cherokees. It particularly pains me, over forty years after the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act, that legislation has to be introduced to compel the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma to recognize the basic civil rights of the Cherokee Freedmen.''

Many of the 2,800 freedmen are the descendants of slaves owned by Cherokees in the 19th century. Many are the descendants of African American and Indian parents. The Cherokee backed the Confederacy in the Civil War, the U.S. Army assigned the former slaves to reside among tribal members, and Congress made it a condition of the tribe's continuing in the Union that the former slaves become tribal citizens. They have come to be known since as the Cherokee freedmen. Congress and the courts have protected them from curtailment of their tribal citizenship rights in the past. The nation's own Supreme Court upheld freedmen rights prior to March 3, when the Cherokee voted to expel the freedmen from the tribe. Smith argued that their growing number threatened the Indian identity of the tribe. But the BIA, courts and public opinion turned against the tribe, resulting in the restoration of the freedmen to tribal citizenship for long enough at least to vote in a June 23 election on Cherokee membership in March.

The hope that the Cherokee membership will affirm freedmen citizenship on June 23 has begun to be heard in the corridors and grounds around Capitol Hill. To wit: ''If they don't they'll really be in trouble.'' ''What will the trouble be then?'' ''The Watson bill will come up on the House floor.''

For months now the word in Washington has been that Waters is incensed enough at the Cherokee to revoke either the tribe's funding or its federal recognition. She spoke with Smith by telephone June 5, and on June 6 chaired the meeting of a subcommittee hearing in the House of Representatives on reauthorization of the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Assistance Act. In her opening remarks, Waters said straight out that the NAHASDA bill will not move until the Cherokee freedmen issue is favorably resolved. Later in the hearing she asked for comments on it from a panel of national tribal leaders. None of them rose to the occasion, keenly aware the issue could take over the hearing. Later that week or the next, Smith and a team of attorneys met with Waters, who came away from the meeting convinced that Smith ''doesn't get it'' and more determined than before to confront him on behalf of the freedmen if need be. On June 8 the New York Times editorialized against the Cherokee treatment of the freedmen. Watson gave Smith and the Cherokee until June 21 to find a compromise before 'dropping' her bill, as Capitol Hill jargon has it.

The Oklahoman newspaper reports that Oklahoma Reps. Tom Cole and Dan Boren, the only two Indians in Congress, oppose any legislation as premature while the BIA, the Bush administration and Congress continue to review the freedmen issue.