OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Legislation proposing to sever U.S. relations with the Cherokee Nation and cut off the tribe's ability to conduct gaming operations could be introduced in Congress this week. U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., has circulated a draft of the measure, which was spurred on by a March election that temporarily stripped Cherokee membership from descendants of people the tribe owned as slaves. The legislation would cut off tribal funding from several federal agencies, suspend the Cherokees' gaming authority and allow any descendant of the so-called Freedmen to sue the tribe in federal court.
In a March 3 special election, Cherokee voters approved a constitutional amendment to remove about 2,800 Freedmen descendants from the tribe's rolls -- and therefore eliminate their eligibility for medical and other services provided by the tribe. That vote has been challenged in the federal and tribal court systems. While those court challenges and a review by the Interior Department are ongoing, U.S. Reps. Dan Boren and Tom Cole of Oklahoma believe Congress should not intervene.
"It would be more appropriate to discuss congressional action after these review procedures are complete," said Boren, D-Okla. Boren's district includes Tahlequah, where the 260,000-member Cherokee Nation is based.
Cole, R-Okla., called Watson's bill "a bad idea" at this time and said Congress shouldn't "punish" the Cherokees while the courts and the Bush administration are reviewing the issue.
"There's a lot of emotion surrounding this issue right now," said Cole, a Chickasaw.
The Cherokee Nation has temporarily restored the tribal membership of the Freedmen descendants, who will be allowed to vote in a June 23 general election that includes a re-election bid by Principal Chief Chad Smith. Last week, a federal judge denied a
motion to stop the election that was filed by the Freedmen descendants.
Cherokees owned slaves before the Civil War and agreed in an 1866 treaty with the United States to include them as tribal members as free people. Other tribes that had owned slaves made similar agreements.
The Cherokees claim they have the right to determine who can be a citizen, but others, including the descendants of some Cherokee Freedmen, say the tribe is in direct violation of the post-Civil War treaty.