CRITICS OF CHEROKEES
U.S. Reps. Diane Watson: As part of the effort to build a record that could lead to a hearing, they have laid out a series of questions in a letter concerning the status of the freedmen and the tribe.
By JIM MYERS World Washington Bureau
Last Modified: 7/6/2008 4:34 AM
A congressional hearing is apparently the goal.WASHINGTON — Congressional critics of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma continue to press a federal agency concerning the status of the descendants of the tribe’s freedmen.
One of their major goals apparently is to force the controversial issue before a congressional hearing.
The Cherokee Nation believes such a hearing should be viewed as “blatant interference” by lawmakers if it is scheduled before pending litigation is resolved.
As part of their effort to build a record that could lead to a hearing, U.S. Reps. Diane Watson, D-Calif., the most vocal critic of the Cherokee Nation in Congress, and John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, laid out a series of questions concerning the status of the freedmen and the tribe in a letter to George Skibine. Skibine is the acting head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Their questions range from the legal status of the freedmen and the processing of citizenship applications to the BIA’s actions to protect freedmen’s rights and the federal government’s take on the Cherokee constitution.
Noting a March meeting with Skibine’s predecessor, Carl Artman, the two lawmakers cite complaints they had passed on then that the BIA had failed to take action to protect rights of the freedmen, former slaves of Cherokees.
Watson and Conyers’ letter was dated June 3, but a copy was released several days ago.
It followed a May 22 letter from Artman to them and two other key lawmakers who also were at the meeting.
In his letter, Artman, who has since left office, told the lawmakers the BIA will not take further action on the long-running freedmen controversy until the litigation is resolved.
A group of freedmen filed the lawsuit challenging a vote by the Cherokee Nation to remove freedmen descendants from tribal rolls.
Watson, who believes the Cherokee Nation would be in violation of an 1866 treaty if it expels the freedmen, made it clear she was not satisfied with Artman’s response.
When asked about the letter to Skibine, Watson aide Bert Hammond said the lawmakers wanted more responses from the BIA in writing so a record could be established.
Hammond said that could lead to a congressional hearing.
The BIA did not respond to a request for a comment on the letter from Watson and Conyers.
In a written statement, the Cherokee Nation expressed opposition to scheduling a hearing before the litigation is resolved.
“With all due respect to the prerogatives of members of Congress, it is clear that a hearing would be a blatant interference by politicians in the litigation on these very issues currently in the federal and tribal courts,” tribe spokesman Mike Miller said.
“No matter what your opinion is on the merits, it would be inappropriate to have a hearing before the courts decide.”
Still, the tribe backed the effort to provide additional information to lawmakers.
“We think the more information that members of Congress have, the clearer it will be that the Cherokee Nation’s actions have been consistent with our treaty obligations, our constitution, and federal and tribal laws and court decisions,” Miller said.
He expressed hope that lawmakers also come to realize that Congress already has passed laws in 1902 and 1906 to remove freedmen descendants as citizens of the Cherokee Nation.
Miller said the tribe is now in the position of being forced into giving non-Indian freedmen something that Congress took away more than 100 years ago.
“We also hope they understand that cutting our federal funding will take away health care, housing and education assistance for thousands of low-income Indians and non-Indian freedmen descendants who have temporarily reinstated in the tribe,” he said.
Watson and others have pushed legislation designed to withhold federal funds as a way to force the tribe to drop its efforts on the freedmen.
A potential impasse on that issue may put at risk a housing bill supported by tribes across the country.
Jim Myers (202) 484-1424