WASHINGTON — A California congresswoman introduced legislation Thursday that would sever U.S. relations with the Cherokee Nation unless the descendants of freed slaves are allowed to remain as members of the tribe. Rep. Diane Watson, who is black and a Democrat, wrote the bill three months after Cherokees voted to exclude the descendants of Freedmen, touching off a controversy and reviews by the tribe, the Bush administration and a federal court. Watson said a treaty signed by the Cherokees with the United States in 1866 says unequivocally that the Freedmen — the descendants of slaves owned by Cherokees before the Civil War — were citizens with all the rights of Cherokees. The tribe has, until this year, treated the descendants of those slaves as full members. She said Thursday, "It particularly pains me, over 40 years after the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act, that legislation has to be introduced to compel the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma to recognize the basic civil rights of the Cherokee Freedmen. "The Cherokee Nation's leadership claims that it has the sovereign right to determine who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. But the sovereign right to discriminate is no right at all.”
About the billAccording to Watson's office, the legislation would cut all federal funding to the tribe, estimated to be $300 million annually, and suspend its authority to conduct gaming operations until the tribe restores full citizenship to the black Cherokees.
Oklahoma reactionReps. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee, and Tom Cole, R-Moore, said last week that they think the vote by the Cherokees should be reviewed by the Interior Department and the tribe before any legislative action is taken. Boren represents the eastern Oklahoma area where the tribe is located. Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, is an influential member of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees American Indian issues. Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, said Thursday, "The Cherokee Nation simply wants to be an Indian tribe composed of Indians. The introduction of this bill is really a misguided attempt to deliberately harm the Cherokee Nation in retaliation for this fundamental principle that is shared by more than 500 other Indian tribes.
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