Congress should force Cherokees’ decision on Freedmen 8-07

TULSA, Okla. (AP) – Congress should get involved in the Cherokee Nation’s freedmen issue to force the tribe “to honor their commitment” to descendants of slaves, according to Sen. Tom Coburn.

Coburn, R-Okla., serves on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and his comment could be a major setback for efforts by others to have lawmakers back off and give the legal process more time.

During a special election in March, members of the tribe voted overwhelmingly to take away tribal citizenship from about 2,800 descendants of tribal slaves, who are commonly known as freedmen.

In May, a tribal court issued a temporary injunction allowing the freedmen to maintain their citizenship while they appeal the constitutionality of the March election.

One of the tribe’s more vocal congressional critics, Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., has scheduled a trip next week to Oklahoma, where she may meet with Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith.

Watson also is expected to meet with the NAACP and members of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus.

Coburn discussed the issue with the Tulsa World’s Washington bureau several days after a House committee approved a provision to block the tribe from participating in a loan program to force it to drop efforts to strip certain freedmen descendants from its rolls.

A bill with that provision could be on the House floor by September.

“I’m supportive of the freedmen,” Coburn said. “It is part of their deal, and it is breaking a contract. I think they (the tribe) are wrong.”

Coburn’s comments reflect a different approach than that taken by Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., who serves on the House panel that took the action against the Cherokees. Boren continues to urge fellow lawmakers to take a wait-and-see approach to the freedmen issue.

Boren has said he believes Congress should stay out of the controversy for now and allow the legal process to continue.

Smith expressed interest in meeting with Watson.

“In our meeting, I look forward to explaining that the Cherokee Nation favors finding a path to citizenship for all 2,867 disenrolled freedmen descendants who can trace Cherokee heritage,” he said.

“The congressional legislation that has been introduced would ignore our unilateral and voluntary commitment.”

In June, Watson, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, introduced a bill to strip the tribe of its estimated $300 million in annual federal funds in an attempt to force the tribe to restore full citizenship rights to its freedmen descendants.

Her bill, which is viewed by some as more symbolic than a serious legislative threat, also would suspend the tribe’s rights to conduct its gaming operations and sever all ties between the tribe and the U.S. government.

She and other members of the caucus view the tribe’s effort to expel certain freedmen descendants as discrimination.

Smith said the tribe’s membership remains inclusive.

“We have always said that this issue has never been about race but instead about who has Indian lineage and who is a documented Cherokee,” he said.

“We are a truly diverse nation, including thousands of Cherokee citizens who are African Americans and who also have an Indian ancestor on the Dawes Cherokee Blood Roll, including 1,500 freedmen descendants who are citizens of the nation.”

Information from: Tulsa World,