Monthly Archives: May 2008

Obama Upholds Tribal Sovereignty

Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) has stated his opposition to H.R. 2824, an attempt by his fellow Congressional Black Caucus member Rep. Diane Watson (D-CA) to sever government-to-government relations with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma because of an on-going dispute between the tribe and the “Cherokee Freedmen.”

In a March 13, 2008 Letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, members of the Congressional Black Caucus stated that “members of the CBC will not support, and will actively oppose passage of NAHASDA” unless the bill contains a “provision that would prevent the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma from receiving any benefits or funding” until they extended tribal membership to the Freedmen. The letter contained the signatures of 35 CBC members, but not the signature of White House hopeful Senator Barack Obama. 

Still, the Native American community began raising questions about an Obama Presidency that could potentially support CBC efforts to undermine the rights of tribal governments to determine their own membership.  Asked to clearly state his position on H.R. 2824, Obama’s campaign issued the following statement: 

“Tribal sovereignty must mean that the place to resolve intertribal disputes is the tribe itself,” Obama said. “Our nation has learned with tragic results that federal intervention in internal matters of Indian tribes is rarely productive – failed policies such as Allotment and Termination grew out of efforts to second-guess Native communities.  That is not a legacy we want to continue.”

 With respect to the Cherokee Freedman issue, Senator Obama said that while he is opposed to unwarranted tribal disenrollment, congressional interference was not warranted at this point. “Discrimination anywhere is intolerable, but the Cherokee are dealing with this issue in both tribal and federal courts. As it stands, the rights of the Cherokee Freedmen are not being abrogated because there is an injunction in place that ensures the Freedman’s rights to programs during the pendency of the litigation. I do not support efforts to undermine these legal processes and impose a congressional solution. Tribes have a right to be self governing and we need to respect that, even if we disagree, which I do in this case. We must have restraint in asserting federal power in such circumstances.”

Regarding Sen. Obama also reiterated his support for fulfilling the government’s treaty obligations to tribes. “The Cherokee Freedmen issue highlights the larger issue of the unfulfilled treaty promises made by the federal government to tribes.”  It is these promises that the Senator is most concerned with as the future president.  Sen. Obama understands that the federal government owes a legal and moral obligation to tribes to provide health care, education and other essential services to tribes.  “This is not a handout, but compensation for millions of acres of land relinquished by tribes,” he said.

Those are the words of Senator Barack Obama, but what about his actions?  Native Americans still concerned about an Obama presidency should research the websites of Clinton, Obama, and McCain for an indication of each candidate’s interest in their community.  Clinton and McCain websites have no specific links or information for Native American peoples or issues, while Senator Obama’s campaign has a main page link directly to his website for “First Americans,” at http://www.tribes.barackobama.com.  Further, a look at all three candidates’ campaign teams reveal that Senator Obama has a Native American Community Outreach Coordinator and a 30-member Tribal Steering Committee.  If Clinton and McCain have a Native American presence on their campaign teams, it is well hidden.

Sen. Obama’s opposition to Diane Watson’s legislation will undoubtedly be met with unrest by those of his fellow members of the CBC that side with the Cherokee Freedmen, but Obama appears to be no stranger to the CBC’s disaffections.  Last year, online political publication TheHill.com reported on the CBC’s anger with Obama about rejecting an invitation to debate on Fox News, and added that “Obama has irked fellow CBC members by failing to respond to a request made early last year that he host a fundraiser for the Black Caucus’s political action committee (PAC). [Senator Hillary] Clinton received a similar invitation and quickly followed through by headlining a CBC PAC fundraiser in March of 2006.”  Perhaps this is why the CBC recruited Hillary Clinton and not Barack Obama to be the Guest Speaker at their 37th Annual Legislative Conference, prompting the Washington Times to speculate that the CBC was quietly trying to endorse her bid for the presidency.

Hopefully to the Native American community it is obvious that Obama and the CBC do not have mutual and unequivocal support for one another. He clearly opposes H.R.2824 that was introduced by Diane Watson, who –incidentally- endorsed his rival Senator Hillary Clinton and now serves as an advisor to the Clinton campaign.