Editorial: Cherokee Nation deserves heat on Freedmen
No one likes it when Washington meddles with tribal affairs. But the Cherokee Nation deserves the heat for the way its leaders have handled the removal of the Freedmen.

Chief Chad Smith is urging Rep. Diane Watson (D-California) to hold off on a bill that would sever the tribe's federal funding and rescind approval of the tribe's gaming enterprise. He wants the tribal and federal courts to decide on the status of the Freedmen before Congress takes action.

"We are a people of laws, and we believe this issue is best handled by the courts and not Congress. We will abide by the decision of the courts," Smith said.

But Smith and other Cherokee leaders cannot be trusted to accept the decision of any court. When Lucy Allen, a Freedmen descendant, sued in tribal court to gain citizenship, the tribe argued it wasn't accountable to its own judicial process.

Some might say that's just good lawyering but witness the aftermath. As soon as the Cherokee Nation's highest court ruled in favor of Allen, Smith and other tribal leaders called for a referendum to overturn their own court's decision.

Who's to say that won't happen again after the next round of tribal court proceedings? The Cherokee Nation will just hold election after election until tribal leaders get the answer they want: to deny citizenship to the Freedmen.

As for the federal lawsuit brought by Marilyn Vann, another Freedmen descendant, Smith's plea carries little weight. The tribe vehemently opposed being included as a defendant in the case and is currently filing briefs with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to fight it.

The Cherokee Nation certainly has a right to appeal just like any other party in a judicial proceeding. But the tribe's defiant stance in federal court doesn't jibe with Smith's public relations campaign.

Smith, an attorney by trade, is one of the most intelligent and politically-savvy leaders in Indian Country. With strong allies in Washington and beyond, he will do anything to defend the tribe's position.

But for those with doubts about Smith's tenacity, look at how Cherokee leaders have treated their fellow Indians in Oklahoma. It's just as bad -- if not worse -- as the way the Freedmen have been handled.

Through litigation, the Cherokees kicked the Delaware Tribe off the list of federally recognized entities. The Delawares lost all of their federal funding and had to shut down their health, education and elder programs.

Yet now that the Cherokee Nation could face a similar fate, Smith wants the rest of Indian Country to stand by his people.

Through a special act of Congress passed with little debate, the Cherokee Nation graciously freed the Shawnee Tribe. Yet under the legislation -- which just happened to be the lobbying project of former Cherokee Chief Ross Swimmer -- the Shawnees remain beholden to their former masters on just about every matter.

So when Smith now says his tribe's sovereignty is at risk, it rings a bit hollow, especially since the same type of "deal" is being offered to the Delawares.

Through litigation and other proceedings, the Cherokee Nation continues to deny the existence of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. The UKBs are a "corporation" -- not a tribe -- according to Smith's public relations machine.

That kind of word play pervades the Freedmen dispute, in which Smith repeatedly refers to them an "non-Indians" -- a term that was curiously adopted by the National Congress of American Indians when it spoke out against Watson's bill. That means Smith has pre-decided that the Freedmen don't belong, regardless of what any court might say.

So our words to Congresswoman Watson are Don't Wait. Or else you'll be waiting a long time before the Cherokee Nation agrees to accept the Freedmen.

Cherokee-Related Legislation:
H.R.2895 | H.R.2824 | H.R.3002

BIA Letters:
August 9, 2007 | July 11, 2007 | June 22, 2007 | May 21, 2007 | March 28, 2007 | August 30, 2006

Sovereign Immunity Court Decision:
Vann v. Kempthorne (December 19, 2006)

Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal Decision in Freedmen Case:
Allen v. Cherokee Nation (March 7, 2006)

Relevant Links:
Cherokee Nation - http://www.cherokee.org
Freedmen Of The Five Civilized Tribes - http://www.freedmen5tribes.com
Freedmen Conference - http://www.freedmenconference.com

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