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GOP candidate says Cherokees aren't real Indians
Friday, September 17, 2004

A conservative Republican in a highly competitive race with a Cherokee Nation tribal member is coming under fire for claiming that Cherokees "aren't Indians" and for suggesting that tribal sovereignty is a "joke."

Tom Coburn, a former Congressman who won the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate over rivals who had the backing of party leaders, told a town hall meeting in Altus, Oklahoma, recently that the Cherokee Nation wants to enroll more members in order to receive more federal funds. He questioned the legitimacy of the tribe's heritage and said "the average Cherokee [blood] quantum is 1/512."

"Alright, listen, I know the tribal issues," he said on August 21. "I was a congressman where most of the Indians are in this state. The problem is, most of them aren't Indians."

Coburn went on to criticize attempts by several Oklahoma tribes to assert environmental authority over their lands. He then blasted opponent Rep. Brad Carson (D), a Cherokee member, for sponsoring a bill that would prevent land owned by Cherokee and other citizens of the Five Civilized Nations from falling out of trust.

"I mean this is a joke," Coburn told the audience. "It is one thing for us to keep our obligations to recognize Native Americans, but it's a totally different thing for us to allow a primitive agreement with the Native Americans to undermine Oklahoma's future and that's what they're talking about doing and it's big money."

The remarks largely went unnoticed until the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is making a big push on behalf of Carson, began circulating them. Previously, only Coburn's characterization of the race against Carson as "the battle of good versus evil," also made at the Altus meeting, ended up in the mainstream press.

But now, tribal leaders who are firing back at Coburn for his "divisive" comments. Even though some are registered Republicans, they say they aren't going to support him.

"I'm a Republican and it is hard to understand why Tom Coburn takes pride in dividing Oklahoma and ridiculing people," said Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. "If you disagree with him, you are evil. There's no discussion, no room for understanding."

"I've been a Republican all my life and Tom Coburn is an embarrassment to the Republican party," added Bill Johnson, a tribal council member.

The battle between Coburn and Carson is a significant one for several reasons. Carson would be the only Native American in the Senate since Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana, is retiring.

The outcome of the race also will help determine which party controls the Senate. Democrats and Republicans are hoping to pick up seats in order to shift the balance of power in what is now a one-member Republican majority.

Polls currently show the two candidates neck-and-neck. A television poll released this week put Carson in the lead but only by two points. Nearly one in five voters was undecided. The Senate seat up for grabs is being vacated by Republican Don Nickels, who is retiring.

Smith has said in the past that the Cherokee Nation does not endorse candidates for public office. But he has actively encouraged tribal members to vote. The tribe counts more than 200,000 members.

Former principal chief Wilma Mankiller is supporting Democratic candidates, including the presidential ticket of Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards. She characterized Coburn as a radical who is out of touch with America.

"Tom Coburn's extremist views on the basic rights of women and outrageous views of tribal citizens and their governments are shocking and simply too far out of the mainstream for him to serve as our United States Senator," she said.

Carson won his party's nomination in July with 80 percent of the vote. He was elected twice to the U.S. House, serving the 2nd Congressional district, which has the highest percentage of Native Americans anywhere in the country.

Listen to Coburn:
Remarks at Altus Town Hall (August 21, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Cherokee Nation -
Tom Coburn -
Brad Carson, campaign site -
Brad Carson, U.S. House site -

Related Stories:
Senate candidate Coburn denies malpractice (9/15)
Senate race pits tribal member against conservative (07/28)

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