Smith rallies NCAI support on Freedman issue

Denver, Colorado (CNC/ICC) 11-07

Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith

AP File photo

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith urged tribal leaders during a presentation at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) November 13, to tell Congress that the citizenship status of about 2,800 descendants of former slaves in the Nation should be decided by the courts instead of politics.

At a press conference NCAI President Joe Garcia, Chief Smith unveiled a plan to rally support to oppose H.R. 2824, a bill that would sever U.S.-Cherokee relations and cut nearly $300 million in federal funding for crucial social services such as health care, housing and education for young, elderly and infirm Cherokees according to Smith.

Smith said the Bill, authored by California Congresswoman Diane Watson, H.R. 2824 aims to punish the Nation in response to a March 2007 vote of the Cherokee people to require every citizen in the tribe – whether African, Caucasian, Asian or Hispanic-American – to have at least one Indian ancestor listed on the 1906 federal census known as the Dawes Rolls.

More than 500 other tribes in the United States also require their citizens to have Indian ancestry according to the press release from the Cherokee Nation.

The March vote according to the release disenrolled about 2,800 Freedmen descendants who had been citizens in the tribe for about a year due to a Cherokee Supreme Court ruling that allowed citizenship for descendants of people listed on the Dawes Rolls as non-Indians.

"Rather than follow past court decisions or wait for current federal and tribal court cases to be decided, Congresswoman Watson is pushing a scorched-earth policy that will cut vital services like day care, cancer treatment clinics and housing aid for Cherokees," Smith said.

"It is outrageous to propose terminating the existence of an Indian Nation. This is an uncalled for response to a legal question of treaty interpretation. Not since the Termination Era of the 1950s, when the federal government's official policy was complete destruction of indigenous peoples, have we seen such a piece of legislation," Garcia said.

The Nation's plan for rallying tribal support includes: an outreach campaign to all tribal leaders throughout the United States; letter-writing campaigns to Members of Congress by tribal leaders and the grassroots; and educational efforts at major Native American-focused conferences to raise awareness about the issue.

The Nation has been showcasing its diversity, which includes thousands of African Americans and about 1,500 Freedmen descendants. All are citizens because they each have an Indian ancestor listed on the Dawes Rolls.

Litigation over Freedmen citizenship issues continues in federal and tribal courts. Until all litigation is resolved, the approximately 2,800 Freedmen descendants have been reinstated to citizenship in the Nation with full social services assistance and the right to vote. H.R. 2824 will hurt many of those who receive such federal assistance.

To help Freedmen descendants become citizens, the Nation will fund genealogical studies to assist them in learning whether they have an Indian ancestor listed on the Dawes Rolls, no matter how long it takes.

A recent unoffical voluntary poll in which 99 people cast a vote at indicated that that 34% of respondants believed "The Cherokee Nation had violated a treaty" by the referendum decision. 20% said "Racism seems to be the main issue, while 19% said the issue was one that "Only the Cherokee Nation need to deal with." 11% believed the "Issue is an exercise of sovereignty, no matter the outcome."

Here are five other undisputed facts to know about this issue as listed by the Cherokee Nation Communications Department on behalf of the Nation:

1. The March 2007 vote requiring Indian ancestry for citizenship had nothing to do with race and everything to do with who is a Cherokee.

2. The Cherokee Nation has complied with the Treaty of 1866 with the United States, and numerous courts and commentators have confirmed this fact over the last 140 years. The Nation believes the Treaty never granted citizenship to Freedmen and their descendants and that the Congress clarified that today's Freedmen descendants are not entitled to citizenship through the Five Tribes Act in 1906. Regardless of what Congress believes, this issue is before the courts.

3. Two percent of Cherokees held slaves before the Nation voluntarily emancipated them in 1863 – two years before the end of the Civil War.

4. Two-thirds of Cherokees fought for the Union during the Civil War.

5. In addition to cutting social services for Cherokees, H.R. 2824 would eliminate 6,500 jobs in Oklahoma.