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BIA changes course on Cherokee Nation constitution


The Bureau of Indian Affairs will no longer be reviewing the Cherokee Nation's constitutions after assistant secretary Carl Artman on Thursday approved a critical tribal amendment.

A provision in the tribe's constitution requires the BIA to approve any changes. In June, tribal voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to remove federal oversight.

Artman sent a letter to the tribe yesterday approving the amendment. That's a shift from his earlier position in which he rejected the change because the Freedmen, who are the descendants of former slaves, weren't allowed to vote when the proposal was first considered in 2003.

The Freedmen were allowed to vote in the June election. In an interview today, Artman said that was one of the factors that prompted him to approve the amendment.

"We disapproved the amendment that was voted on in 2003," Artman said. "The big issue we had with that was that the Freedmen had not been allowed to vote on that amendment."

Since the Freedmen are now part of the tribe -- although only a temporary basis while their citizenship is being considered in tribal court -- Artman said there was no reason to deny the latest amendment. "So with that in mind, they met the requirements of their own laws and, in our view, we needed to approve the amendment to affirm their tribal sovereignty," he said of the Cherokees.

Despite the removal of federal oversight of the constitution, Artman said the BIA retains a role in enforcing a post-Civil War treaty at issue in the dispute. "The 1866 treaty quite clearly states the Freedmen shall be members of the Cherokee Nation and shall remain so," he said.

Should the Cherokees attempt to deny citizenship to the Freedmen, the BIA would take action, Artman said. "We would have to enforce it in court," he said.

He declined to speculate whether that might include the denial of federal funds -- something that is being contemplated in pending legislation. The BIA hasn't taken a position on those bills, which have been advancing in the House.

"I think it's important for everyone to remember that we have viewed and we still view the Freedmen as members of the Cherokee Nation," Artman said.

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

BIA Letters:
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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