Black Lawmaker Eyes Cutting Cherokee Funding Over Ex-Slave Vote

Thursday, April 19th 2007, 3:22 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A black congresswoman is seeking to cut off funding for the Cherokee Nation after the tribe's recent vote to revoke citizenship of slave descendants.

Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., said the Bush administraton has dragged its feet after the March 3 tribal referendum, which removed an estimated 2,800 black slave descendants from tribal rolls.

The tribe insists that the vote last month had nothing to do with race. But Watson and about two dozen members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to the Interior Department last month expressing outrage over the vote and asking how the government could intervene.

The Interior Department responded in a letter to the caucus last week saying that it was concerned about the vote and was still reviewing its legality.

In an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, Watson said the agency doesn't seem willing to address the issue and is turning a blind eye to discrimination. She said she is drafting legislation, which she plans to introduce next week, to cut off the Cherokee Nation's federal funding.

``It's blatantly apparent that the Cherokee Nation violated their constitution,'' Watson said. ``The Department of Interior has a fiduciary duty to act ... They should be going after them. It shouldn't take me and the other members of the Congressional Black Caucus to pursue the issue.''

The tribe has an annual budget of about $300 million, and about 80 percent of it comes from the federal government.

While Watson said she expects broad support from the black caucus, CBC director Joe Leonard said the group has not yet signed onto the bill and is still hoping for action from the Interior Department.

``We're taking them at their word right now,'' Leonard said.

A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said ``discrimination in any form is troubling. We hope that the Department of Interior would look at this issue closely.''

More than 76 percent of Cherokee Nation members voting last month supported the referendum to limit citizenship to descendants of ``by blood'' tribe members and disqualify freedmen _ descendants of the people the Cherokee once owned as slaves.

Leaders of the tribe say the initiative was simply an effort to limit membership to people with known Cherokee descent and that the federal government has no right to interfere. They note the tribe has thousands of black and mixed-race members who are not affected by the vote.

``We're disappointed that someone would want to attack the Cherokee Nation,'' said spokesman Mike Miller. ``The Cherokee Nation is one of the most inclusive Indian tribes in the country ... we're a little bit confused about why our nation is being singled out when we are actually just like everyone else with a very simple requirement that you have to be an Indian to be in an Indian tribe.''

The dispute dates back to a post-Civil War treaty with the U.S. government. In that treaty, the tribe _ which originated in the Southeast but was forcibly moved to what is now Oklahoma in the 1830s _ agreed to give former slaves full rights as tribal members.

Descendants of the freedmen have struggled in recent years to reclaim their citizenship, which brings with it eligibility for medical care and other services provided by the tribe.

A ruling in 2006 by the tribe's Supreme Court held that the Cherokee constitution guarantees citizenship to the slave descendants. The ruling prompted an initiative _ culminating in last month's referendum _ to amend the constitution and eliminate freedmen from the rolls.

In its letter to the black caucus, dated April 11, the Interior Department emphasized that the government has not approved the referendum and is conducting a ``careful evaluation of all facets of this matter,'' including its underlying legal basis.