Cherokees react to Calif congresswoman’s bill to halt funds

by Ron Jenkins
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP) 8-07

A California congresswoman and a Cherokee leader held dueling news conferences at the state Capitol during August on a bill to strip the Cherokee Nation of federal funding.

Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., said Cherokees broke an 1866 treaty when they voted March 3 to deny tribal citizenship to more than 2,000 descendants of black slaves, known as Cherokee freedmen.

She has recently introduced a bill to cut off federal funds to the tribe unless it rescinds the vote. She said her legislation would cost the tribe about $300 million that is distributed through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “It’s a bill to eradicate the legal existence of the Cherokee Nation, to terminate all assistance and funding,” Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith said.

Smith said the legislation would cost the tribe 6,500 jobs and many of its poorest citizens would lose health benefits.

The Cherokee Supreme Court has ruled freedmen can continue to receive benefits until the issue is determined in the federal court system.

Smith maintained Congress should let the court process play out.

“The Congress is not judge, jury and executioner,” he said.

Watson, who said she has Indian blood in her family and is a descendant of Pocahontas, argued Cherokees forfeited their right to benefits by voting to disenfranchise the freedmen.

“You cannot break the law and then receive benefits. This bill is about the rule of law,” she said.

“That is taxpayer money. I don’t understand how that vote was taken,” she said. She said Cherokees accepted the freedmen as “a protected class” in 1866.

Mike Miller, a spokesman for the tribe, said tribal officials do not believe they have broken the law.

Miller said 1,500 descendants of black slaves who can document some degree of Indian blood on the Dawes Roll will continue to receive benefits and were not denied tribal citizenship in the March vote.

In an earlier statement, Smith said while Cherokees voted overwhelmingly to “return to being an Indian tribe composed of Indians, they also recognize that it is fair and right that the 2,867 people who made an effort to become citizens in the last year should remain citizens with full benefits during the litigation.”

In a town hall meeting in Tulsa, Watson characterized the tribal status of the freedmen as the “most significant civil rights movement of this century.”

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.

The 2007 vote was the result of a petition drive to amend the Cherokee Constitution and once more remove freedmen who could not document that they had Indian blood.

Some freedmen have said they can document their tribal ancestry, but they were not on the original Dawes rolls.

In her remarks, Watson suggested the tribe could use revenue from Cherokee casinos to pick up the cost of social services that would not be paid for by the federal government under her legislation.

Miller, however, cited a section of her bill that would prohibit the tribe from engaging in gaming.

Watson, who represents a district in Los Angeles, said her bill defends all taxpayers in the country.

She said her interest in the issue was piqued because of Indian ancestry and her ties to Oklahoma. She said her grandfather bought land in Oklahoma and her mother’s siblings were born in the state. “We have roots here,” she said.