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Cherokee Nation faulted for ousting Freedmen

A former leader of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma faulted his tribe on Friday for ousting the descendants of former African slaves.

Former principal chief Joe Byrd said the tribe's March referendum to deny citizenship to the Freedmen smacked of racism. He called on his successor, Chad Smith, to "do the right thing" and put an end to an issue that has generated significant national legal and political controversy.

"We were all created equal," Byrd said at a Congressional Black Caucus panel in Washington, D.C. "Do not look at the color of ones' skin to justify or try to rationalize your decisions."

Byrd said tribes have a right to define their membership. But the Cherokee Nation's 1866 treaty with the United States requires the Freedmen and their descendants to be treated just like other Cherokees, he said.

"The Freedmen came with us on the Trail of Tears," he recalled. "They delivered babies with us. They died with us. They ate with us. They buried our dead. They were one of us."

The Freedmen and the Cherokees appear together on the Dawes Roll, a government census conducted after the Civil War. The March referendum amended the tribe's constitution to require citizens to have an ancestor on the Cherokee side of the roll.

The change means that Freedmen descendants who would otherwise be entitled to citizenship cannot enroll unless they prove they are Cherokee by blood. About 2,800 people have been cut off by the amendment, which is on hold pending the resolution of a tribal court case.

The "Cherokee Nation is one of the most racially diverse tribes in the United States, with thousands of members of African, Asian, and Hispanic descent, including Freedmen descendants," said Smith, who called the Congressional Black Caucus panel biased because it failed to include the tribe's viewpoint.

Smith and his administration have backed the tribe's effort to define its citizenship criteria. Several members of Congress, however, don't think the tribe can violate the 1866 treaty without facing repercussions.

"They need to know," Rep. Diane Watson (D-California) said of Cherokee leaders, "that we don't respect the use of taxpayer dollars to discriminate."

Watson, who hosted the panel, is sponsoring a bill to cut the Cherokee Nation's federal funding until the Freedmen are restored to permanent citizenship. The tribe receives somewhere between $270 million to $300 million from the Interior Department.

"My legislation is not an attack on Indian sovereignty," she said.

Watson's bill, H.R.2824, has not received a hearing since it was introduced in June. But other members of the Congressional Black Caucus have introduced legislation to cut housing and other funds to the tribe in hopes of resolving the dispute.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a co-sponsor of H.R.2824, co-hosted the panel, which took place at the CBC's annual leadership meeting. Rep. Mel Watt (D-North Carolina), who succeeded in pushing a Cherokee amendment to a housing bill, was in the audience.

No one on the panel spoke in favor of the tribe's effort to remove the Freedmen. Ed Crittendon, a Cherokee citizen, criticized Smith for making a political issue out "an issue that was decided 140 years ago."

"This is a symptom of a greater disease," he said.

Other panelists included Marilyn Vann, a Freedmen descendant who is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Interior Department, and her attorney, Jon Velie. Rusty Brown of the Delaware Tribe, whose members are considered citizens of the Cherokee Nation under the 1866 treaty, also spoke.

Cherokee-Related Legislation:
H.R.2786 | 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 -
Freedmen Of The Five Civilized Tribes -
Freedmen Conference -
Congressional Black Caucus, Annual Leadership Conference -