The Cherokee Nation would lose some of its federal funding under House legislation passed Thursday if it doesn't reinstate descendants of its former slaves as tribal citizens.
The bill delays the funding cuts until the issue has been addressed in federal court, potentially giving the Oklahoma-based tribe years before it would lose any money. Critics said it sends a clear signal that lawmakers are not happy with the Cherokee decision earlier this year to oust descendants of black slaves, known as Cherokee freedmen.
"The fact that the Cherokee freedmen issue has been raised on floor of the House of Representatives demonstrates the gravity of the issue," said Rep. Diane Watson, a California Democrat who introduced broad legislation earlier this year to cut off Cherokee funding. "If the Cherokee Nation does not move expeditiously (to) comply with its treaty obligations, Congress is poised to take stronger action."
The Cherokee language was included in a bill authorizing funding for Native American housing assistance, which passed 333-75.
'I think this can be worked out'
The House originally adopted an amendment from Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., prohibiting money from going to the tribe unless it reversed its freedmen decision. It later softened the language with a second amendment from Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., that would delay the funding cuts as long as the Cherokee continue recognizing the descendants' tribal status as the matter works its way through federal court.
Mike Miller, a Cherokee spokesman, said the tribe appreciates Boren's efforts to slow things down.
"No federal court has ever said that the Cherokee Nation does not have the right to determine its own citizenship," Miller said. "What this does is allow an opportunity for the facts to be presented in an impartial forum in court."
"I think this can be worked out," Boren said, estimating that the tribe gets about 10 percent of its $300 million in annual federal funding through the housing assistance bill.
Race versus tribal identity
The dispute dates back to a post-Civil War treaty with the U.S. government. In that treaty, the tribe - which originated in the Southeast but was forcibly moved to what is now Oklahoma in the 1830s - agreed to free its slaves and give them full rights as tribal members.
The freedmen were considered tribal members from 1866 until 1975, when a vote of the tribe denied them citizenship. The Cherokee Supreme Court decided in 2006 that vote was in error and restored the freedmen's rights.
After a petition drive, the tribe passed a referendum March 3 amending the tribal constitution to again disqualify freedmen. The vote affected more than 2,800 freedmen who had applied for citizenship.
The tribe insists the issue has nothing to do with race and is a sovereign matter of tribal identity. Cherokee leaders said recently that freedmen would continue receiving tribal benefits until the issue is resolved in court.
The bill is HR 2786.