Black leaders in Congress asked the federal government Tuesday to weigh in on the legality of a vote by the Cherokee Nation earlier this month to revoke citizenship from descendants of former tribal slaves.
Saying they were "shocked and outraged," more than two dozen members of the Congressional Black Caucus signed a letter to the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs questioning the "validity, legality, as well as the morality" of the March 3 vote.
"The black descendant Cherokees can trace their Native American heritage back in many cases for more than a century," said Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif. "They are legally a part of the Cherokee Nation through history, precedent, blood and treaty obligations."
Watson emphasized that the federal government spends billions of dollars a year on Native American programs, including for the Tahlequah, Okla., based-Cherokee Nation.
In the special election, more than 76 percent of those casting ballots voted to amend the tribal constitution to limit citizenship to descendants of "by blood" tribe members and remove an estimated 2,800 freedmen descendants.
The descendants had become tribal citizens after the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruled in March 2006 that they had been wrongly excluded, citing an 1866 treaty the court said assured tribal citizenship to freedmen descendants.
Tribal spokesman denies bias
Mike Miller, a Cherokee Nation spokesman, said the vote was simply a move by the tribe to restrict its rolls to members with known Cherokee descent. It had nothing to do with racism, he said.
"There are many, many black Cherokees or Cherokees of African descent who have tribal citizenship and will continue to have tribal citizenship, because they have a documented tribal ancestor," he said. "What we're really talking about here is whether non-Indians should be citizens."
He also said courts have repeatedly upheld tribes' rights to determine their own citizenship.
"There has not been federal involvement, nor is it proper," he said.
The descendants tried to stop the ballot measure in court but were denied. They have vowed to continue fighting.
Along with Watson, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., civil rights movement veteran John Lewis, D-Ga., and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., were among 26 lawmakers to sign the letter.
They asked for a legal interpretation of the vote and requested possibilities for government recourse.