Senate approves NAHASDA reauthorization
The Senate unanimously approved the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act on Thursday without addressing the Cherokee Freedmen controversy.

The bill, S.2062, reauthorizes a critical program for Indian Country. Tribes will be able to exert more control over federal housing funds.

"We first enacted NAHASDA more than a decade ago to being addressing the serious housing problems in Indian Country," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), one of the co-sponsors.

"Despite progress in recent years in providing better housing in Indian communities, there is still much to be done," added Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), another co-sponsor.

Even though the program has Congressional support, the reauthorization has been in doubt due to an unrelated controversy. The National American Indian Housing Council is concerned that the Freedmen dispute could prevent the bill from becoming law this year.

The House passed a version, H.R.2768, that denies funds to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma unless the Freedmen, who are the descendants of former African slaves, are restored to citizenship. Since the Senate didn't address the issue, the differences will have to be resolved before the bill goes to President Bush for his signature.

Already, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have said they will block the reauthorization unless the Freedmen dispute is resolved. They are backed by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), the powerful chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over NAHASDA.

Presidential politics are also playing a role. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois), a member of the CBC, said he does not support Congressional intervention at a time when the issue is being heard in the tribal and federal courts. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-New York) and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the presumptive Republican nominee, haven't waded into the debate.

NAHASDA isn't the only bill being affected. The long-delayed Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which passed the Senate in February, faces amendments in the House that would prevent the Cherokee Nation from benefiting unless the Freedmen are restored to citizenship.

Cherokee Chief Chad Smith has lashed out against the tactics. He said Congress should stay out of the dispute, which he believes should be resolved within the tribe.

Marilyn Vann, a Freedmen leader who is the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit, has defended the efforts of the CBC. She said Congress, as the final arbiter of Indian issues, has a right to end the controversy.

The Freedmen and their supporters cite an 1866 treaty that ended slavery on the Cherokee Nation as assuring their citizenship rights. At a May 6 hearing, at least two judges on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals appeared to agree with that argument.

The Cherokee Nation believes subsequent acts of Congress extinguished whatever rights the Freedmen may have had within the tribe. Smith has said it is entirely up to the Cherokee people to decide who is entitled to citizenship.

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