HUD Denies Cherokee Funding Over Freedmen Issue

Rob Capriccioso
9/8/11

WASHINGTON – The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has released a letter indicating that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is withholding funds from the tribe in an apparent federal power play over tribal sovereignty.

Cherokee Nation Attorney General Diane Hammons has publicly released a letter sent last week from the tribe to HUD that says the tribe learned of the agency’s action when tribal officials tried to draw approximately $33 million from their HUD housing fund on August 31 and were blocked from doing so.

Hammons writes in the letter that HUD based its rationale on what she labels a “misinterpretation” of Section 801 of the 2008 reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA). That section deals with the Cherokee Freedmen and sought to limit HUD monies to the Cherokee Nation while litigation was pending centering on whether the Freedmen were tribal citizens.

The Freedmen, descendants of slaves once held by tribal citizens, have long argued that they should be granted full citizenship. But some tribal citizens, including some tribal leaders, have staunchly argued that it is appropriate for the tribe to deny them citizenship based on rules enforced by the tribal government. Federal beliefs on the matter should have no bearing, tribal officials have argued.

The latest court action involving the controversial issue came August 22 when the Cherokee Nation's Supreme Court upheld a previous voter-approved constitutional amendment requiring all of the tribe’s citizens to have at least one Indian ancestor on the federal Dawes Rolls. That decision resulted in nearly 3,000 Freedmen being kicked out of the tribe.

In response, Freedmen members filed suit in federal court last week seeking to establish their voting rights in the tribe in time for a tribal election for principal chief coming up later in September. In court documents, the Freedmen argue that the tribe violated a 145-year-old treaty when the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court restored the voter-approved amendment denying citizenship to non-Indian descendants of tribal citizens’ former black slaves. A hearing on the request has been scheduled for September 20.

Time is of the essence in the matter because the tribal court decision, if allowed to stand, would prevent the Freedmen from voting in a September 24 election between tribal councilman Bill John Baker, who is supported by the Freedmen, and former Principal Chief Chad Smith, who is largely not supported by the Freedmen. The tribal court in July threw out the results of a disputed June 25 election between Baker and Smith in which the Freedmen voted.

Regardless of whether the Freedmen are citizens or not, Hammons argues in the letter that the tribe followed the necessary legal pathway to secure HUD funding. She says, too, that Congress would have specifically limited funds to the Cherokee Nation if it intended to do so under the law.

HUD officials confirmed the denial of funds, issuing the following statement September 7: “HUD has suspended disbursements to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma while we seek additional guidance on an unclear statute involving the Freedmen. The funding can be restored once this issue is resolved.”

HUD’s decision to suspend millions of dollars in payment to a tribe based on an issue involving tribal sovereignty is widely controversial in Indian country. The concern is that federal agencies could create rules that would suspend payments to tribes based on other “unclear” interpretations of federal-tribal agreements.

“[T]he important thing to notice is the direct attack by the non-Indian freedmen descendants on the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation, asking for the termination of the tribe’s existence,” Hammons said in a statement, which supports the idea of tribal sovereignty being under attack.

Some federal lawmakers, meanwhile, agree with the decision to limit funding.

“I do not believe the federal government should continue to fund the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma if it is blatantly violating the rights of some members,” U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., wrote in a recent letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. The congressman asked Donovan to “act appropriately to prevent any funding from the federal government for tribal housing.”

Frank sent another letter to Larry Echo Hawk, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, asking that he “take appropriate action to protect the rights of the Cherokee Freedmen.” Echo Hawk has not publicly responded.

See ICTMN’s feature about the Freedmen issue, researched and developed last week and appearing in the September 21 Issue of the magazine here.

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lamar's picture
lamar
Submitted by lamar on
This story is ABSOLUTELY incorrect. Bill John Baker has NEVER supported the Freedmen. Indeed Chad Smith's inability to solve the Freedman issue through a complete lack of leadership is why the Nation is being denied some $30 million. One would hope that this publication immediately write a correction and issue an apology to Mr. Baker. As far as anyone can tell an equal number of Freedmen supported Smith as Baker. There is NO evidence otherwise. When will there be a correction? Bill John Baker supports the Cherokee Supreme Court's decision. Unless you can show otherwise or prove he's sided with the Freedmen your journalistic integrity depends on your doing the right thing and correcting this inaccuracy. Furthermore when Smith uses your quote in his campaign you should obviously do whatever is necessary to right that wrong.

lamar's picture
lamar
Submitted by lamar on
This article is absolutely WRONG. Bill John Baker has never supported the Freedmen and is on record repeatedly in supporting the Cherokee Supreme Court. Chad Smith's complete lack of leadership on the Freedmen issue has brought the Nation to the point where some $30 million is being withheld. This publication should immediately write a correction. And when Smith uses this incorrect quote in his campaign you must do whatever necessary to provide the truth.

nanaiya's picture
nanaiya
Submitted by nanaiya on
Far and away my biggest concern about the media's take on the Freedmen issue, to include that of Indian Country Today, is the perpetuating of a lie, namely that Freedmen are 'only' the descendants of slaves. The reality is that MANY Freedmen are illigitimate descendants and children of Native American Citizens who were unable to get on the by blood Rolls because they were Indian and African. This same 'rule' was NOT applied to Indian and white Citizens. Isn't that by definition racism? Are we truly going to roll over and look away? Over 2000 cases were brought to Court by the Freedmen in what is known as the Joe and Dillard Perry or Dawes Equity Cases . This is CLEARLY a racist issue, and what we have here are THREE separate issues. The first issue is, why isn't the CNO recognizing all Freedmen with by blood ancestry post paste? The CNO's position is they want only BY BLOOD Indians in the Tribe, so what are they waiting for?! The second is, why aren't they following proper channels in excluding Freedmen by putting the (shaky) Sovereighnity of their Tribe at stake? WHY is the CNO squandering millions of dollars that are clearly needed for her Citizens, to keep out legitimate Citizens? The third issue is, that the Treaty of 1866, which recognizes the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma grants FULL Citizenship to ALL Freedmen. The CNO has not gone through proper Channels to ammend their Treaty OR their Constitution. Indian Country, America is watching us, witnessing the clear manipulation of another election and I fear, that because of cases like these we are taking away our own rights and are proving we are unfit to govern ourselves.

nanaiya's picture
nanaiya
Submitted by nanaiya on
Lamar, I don't believe you could name ONE Freedmen ( who wasn't mentally incapacitated) who supported Chad Smith, what a ridiculous claim!!! Supporting the person who spent over 10 MILLION dollars to exclude them sounds more than a little ridiculous. If you speak to Bill Baker privately he will tell you that YES, HE does support the Freedmen. In a position as Chief, as is right, he will support the wishes of the Cherokee people.

softbreeze's picture
softbreeze
Submitted by softbreeze on
I think I remember watching something on PBS a few years back, talking about this issue. Alot of the freedman were having DNA testing done, to prove their ancestry. I can't help but wonder, since this tribal nation depends heavily on Federal funding for their sustenance, that this isn't simply another familiar case of "let's kick out as many members as we can so we can have more for ourselves". I think it's extremely racist to keep the freedman out of the Cherokee nation just because they are of mixed heritage. Most of the "indian" Cherokees aren't full-blooded indians anyway, so who are they to point the finger? Native people need to start remembering their traditional values, and stop behaving like the mainstream society.

candyo's picture
candyo
Submitted by candyo on
Even before the Seal was invented for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the wealthy Cherokees who were cotton farmers bought and sold slaves for farm help. Some of these wealthy Cherokees had off-spring with their slaves and with the civil war the slaves became "free" to leave their wealthy Cherokee cotton plantation owners but they were still related to the Cherokee land owners, they were still their family in ancestry and blood... the Freed Cherokee people were put on lists called "Freedmen rolls" and they were considered the Cherokee People with rights and citizenship. Now, the powers that be - want to exclude those people from their rights of citizenship because they have a racial mindset to feeling superior to others because of their upbringing. They want to forget their history, discard their history, but the Cherokee have come through removal from their homes, land and country and the Cherokee need to own up to their own people that were related to their ancestors from earlier times. Candace Odom gggrandaughter of one of those wealthy plantation owners.

ndnlady's picture
ndnlady
Submitted by ndnlady on
From the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Article 8 1. Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture. 2. States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for: (a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities; (d) Any form of forced assimilation or integration; (e) Any form of propaganda designed to promote or incite racial or ethnic discrimination directed against them. Article 33 1. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. This does not impair the right of indigenous individuals to obtain citizenship of the States in which they live.

ndnlady's picture
ndnlady
Submitted by ndnlady on
nanaiya, (1)your statement that illegitimate descendants of freedmen and Cherokees could not get on the by blood rolls is not true. There are numerous instances of Black Cherokees included on the original By Blood rolls if proper documentation of parentage was provided. Their descendants are citizens today and that has never been in question. Some of them are my relatives! It was true that if a person applied first to the Freedmen roll, they were unable to switch to the By Blood rolls. (2) The only proper channels to determine Cherokee citizenship is the Cherokee constitution and only the Cherokee constitution as determined by the Cherokee people. That is what sovreignty means. (3) In 1895, the US Court of Claims in the Whitmire case said exactly the same thing as the Cherokee Supreme Court: that the Treaty did NOT grant citizenship, the Cherokee constitution did. And no the Cherokee Nation is not taking away our own rights, we are exercising them even in the face of racist interference from the federal government. Cherokee, federal and international law protect Cherokees rights to determine their own citizenship.

ndnlady's picture
ndnlady
Submitted by ndnlady on
So if you ask Bill John "privately" he'll tell you that he supports freedmen descendants demands over Cherokee rights? Really? That is a completely different story than what he is saying publicly as Lamar here points out. Why am I not surprised? So as Chief, how hard would he work to protect Cherokee sovreignty? My guess is not so much.

candyo's picture
candyo
Submitted by candyo on
President Theodore Roosevelt described "The Dawes Act" to Congress of United States on December 3,1901 as a "Mighty pulverizing engine to break up the Tribal Masses." The supporters of the Dawes Act not only wanted to destroy the Indian tribal loyalties and their reservation system but also, to open up their reservation lands to the white settlers. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land remained after the allotments had been made. These parcels of land left-over, that had been owned by the Indians were scarfed up by land hungry white settlers to farm on. Some of the sale of these surplus lands were used for the so called "Indian Schools." The idea was to civilize the Indian children and to assimilate them into the white culture. The allotment system turned out to be a monumental disaster for the Native Americans. In addition to losing their Millions of Acres of Land they also, lost their language which the "Indian Schools" would not allow their children to speak their own tongue. They are still using the Dawes Act to break apart the Cherokee people and their culture today.

ndnlady's picture
ndnlady
Submitted by ndnlady on
candyo, the supporters of allotment did indeed want to destroy tribal nations. Including the freedmen citizens AND the freedmen intruders living in the Cherokee Nation who actively allied themselves with railroad and US government interests to pursue allotment so that they would receive their land in fee simple and have American citizenship. Today their descendants again demand the federal government destroy the Cherokee Nation because we do not extend the same citizenship their ancestors worked so hard to shed. There is a reason why human rights law forbids forced integration of an Indian tribe. The forty year struggle (1866-1906) between Cherokees and freedmen would be a text book example of why that is so. Cherokees have a right to be who they are. African-Americans, who have struggled so hard for their rights, should be supporting our rights, not attacking us because we have something they now want.

nanaiya's picture
nanaiya
Submitted by nanaiya on
ndnlady, history proves you wrong, 2000+ times over. I suggest you do some reading.There are over TWO THOUSAND Dawes Equity cases in which Freedmen, ALL Indians by blood tried to be placed on the Freedmen by Blood Rolls. Yes, there are SOME Cherokee Freedmen on the by blood Rolls, but only if their parent was still alive and willing to fight it did that happen.

ndnlady's picture
ndnlady
Submitted by ndnlady on
Equity case 7071 involved Choctaw and Chickasaw freedmen, not Cherokee.

duwaynesmith's picture
duwaynesmith
Submitted by duwaynesmith on
I am a retired federal employee and formerly held a mid-level management position in the government. I am somewhat familiar with Indian sovereignty and do know that tribes have the authority to determine their own membership and this has been the case for sometime. My own personal opinion, based upon my government experience, is that HUD's decision to withhold federal funding because of the freedman issue appears to be "arbitrary and capricious". Upon what foundation did management in HUD have the right to withhold funds because of this particular issue? It appears to me that the withholding of funds was authorized without proper due cause and adequate justification, thus being arbitrary and capricious. I am sure the Cherokee Nation is now in the process of demanding that HUD provide proper justification for this action. Have other federal agencies withheld funding based upon this issue? Why has HUD taken such action when other federal agencies have not? Does HUD have a particular bias or prejudice in this instance? I believe Assistant Secretary Echo Hawk should defend tribal sovereignty.
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