Freedmen update

There have been several recent developments on the Cherokee Freedmen. Chad Smith won reelection this weekend, beating Stacy Leeds, the former chief justice of the Cherokee Supreme Court, with 59% of the vote. Both candidates said they supported the tribes’ right to determine its own members, but Leeds had written the original decision that revoked the first referendum to exclude the Freedmen. The Freedmen were allowed to vote in this election, though their request to postpone the election altogether was denied in federal court.

The amendment to eliminate the requirement for federal approval of changes in the Cherokee constitution also passed. That too was entangled with the Freedmen issue, as the BIA had earlier sent very mixed messages about whether it would approve the expulsion of the Freedmen (including some bizarreness with an apparently unauthorized signing by autopen of a letter from Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb; for more on that see this earlier post).

Before the election there were some rumors of a compromise in which the Cherokee Freedmen would be recognized as their own tribe, but it looks like that has fallen by the wayside. So it seems the only path remaining for the Freedmen is an unfortunate confrontation between the tribe and the United States. U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, is incensed by the Cherokees’ actions and has already drafted a bill to sever all relations between the federal government and the tribe. This would take away $300 million in federal funds, shut down all Cherokee gambling operations, and cut off many other programs including health coverage. A similar action was taken in 2000 against the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, until they agreed to reinstate their own Freedmen members.

While I’ve heard some doubts about whether this bill will pass, it seems too soon to tell. This may be one of the few controversial issues where Congressmen don’t go into it with their positions laid out in advance. U.S. Representatives from Oklahoma, Tom Cole and Dan Boren, both have not committed either way so far. They say that they don’t want to speak on it before the BIA and the Bush administration makes a decision. But the BIA won’t sever ties without a Congressional order, so it will come down to what happens in Congress.

Though it may be the last remaining legal avenue for the Freedmen, a confrontation with the feds will surely result in more bitterness and division, both among the Cherokee people and between the Cherokees and the U.S. Whichever way it goes, it is tragic that it even had to come to this point.

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