Freedmen issue on detour to Capitol Hill
By Justin Juozapavicius -- Associated Press
TULSA, Okla. (AP) - A dispute involving race and tribal identity that was supposed to play out in the courts now seems headed for Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers want the country's second-largest Indian tribe stripped of $300 million in federal money.
U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, a California Democrat who claims Indian heritage and ties to Oklahoma, is demanding the Cherokee Nation reinstate 2,800 descendants of the tribe's former black slaves, known as freedmen. She calls a March election that booted the freedmen descendants from the tribe ''ethnic cleansing'' and doesn't want to wait on the courts to decide the matter, a process that could take years.
The tribe is digging in to fight the legislation, and its principal chief, Chad Smith, has called Watson's bill a ''scorched-earth'' policy aimed at hurting the poorest and sickest of the nation's 270,000 members.
Neither side shows signs of giving up ground as lawmakers are expected to have a hearing on the matter soon in Washington.
At stake are millions of federal dollars for health clinics, Head Start programs, elderly care and housing assistance for the Tahlequah-based tribe. More than 6,000 nation employees could lose their jobs, touching off a ripple effect that would economically devastate northeastern Oklahoma. Health care to 126,000 patients would be axed.
''If the Cherokee Nation were to fold, I'd be with it,'' said David Rabon Comingdeer, a 15-year employee of the nation. ''It would be like our whole world just fell out from under us.''
But to Watson, those are consequences the nation should have thought of before the election was called.
''We can't even fund education properly or health care properly,'' said Watson, whose bill has 23 co-sponsors, including support from Congressional Black Caucus lawmakers. ''Why should we fund this kind of disenfranchisement?''
Watson wants Smith and his supporters ''to come to their senses and see this is throwing out the blacks, and using federal dollars to do it.
''I stand on the law, I stand on what's right, and I'm not going to massage it for phony reasons,'' she said.
For decades, descendants of freed Cherokee slaves fought to reclaim their citizenship, even though they were adopted into the tribe in 1866 under a treaty with the U.S. government.
A 2006 ruling by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court held that the Cherokee constitution assured freedmen descendants of tribal citizenship.
That led to a petition drive for a ballot measure to determine who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
In March, nearly 77 percent of Cherokee voters decided in a special election to amend the nation's constitution to remove the freedmen descendants and other non-Indians from tribal rolls.
Critics of the vote said then it was hardly a mandate because only a fraction of the nation's tribal citizens - about 9,000 - cast ballots.
Introduction of Watson's bill in June escalated the issue.
Some Oklahoma congressmen, such as Rep. Dan Boren, say the chances Watson's bill will become law are ''almost nonexistent,'' but acknowledge such legislation, if successful, would have far-reaching consequences on the state's economy.
Recent history shows that her bill has a chance of gaining traction. In 2000, after the Seminole Nation voted to oust freedmen descendants from its tribe, the government cut off federal programs and refused to recognize its election. The freedmen were later allowed back in the tribe.
''When you design a legislative bill to hurt the most vulnerable and weak of the population, the young people in their Head Starts and schools, the infirm and frail in our clinics, then that truly is a scorched-earth policy,'' Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''I anticipate this is going to be a long, hard battle.''
Smith expressed surprise some lawmakers took up the issue, and has said the March election had nothing to do with race and everything to do with common heritage. He wants the matter to be decided in the courts.
''This is not my choice,'' Smith said. ''Three thousand Cherokees, by their own initiative, signed a petition and it was brought to a vote. It was the people's decision.''
But freedmen descendants, such as Marilyn Vann, say the tribe is resorting to scare tactics to defend itself, and welcomed the ''additional actions of Congress and additional court cases which continue to pound this on the table.''
''We're the little people to Mr. Smith,'' said Vann, president of the Oklahoma City-based Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. ''We're not supposed to go to Congress, only Mr. Smith and his supporters are allowed.''
Results of the election are on hold pending the legal challenges, but if allowed to stand, descendants such as Tahlequah resident Charlene White would lose tribal benefits, including medical coverage.
That means she would have to find a way to pay for the $200 in groceries the tribe provides her each month, as well as the expensive medical care for her glaucoma now covered at a local clinic.
''It would be a big hardship on me,'' she said.
But White says she's fed up with the war of words over her right to be recognized as a Cherokee citizen.
''I know where I came from,'' said White, who can trace her lineage back seven generations. ''They can take away everything today if they want, but I'm still a freedman.''