Cherokee Nation Faces New Battle

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Rep. Diane Watson (D-CA) has introduced a bill which would sever all federal ties to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, including their ability to operate gaming facilities. The bill comes after Cherokee leadership, she says, stripped 2,800 black Cherokees of their tribal citizenship.

TONY COX, host:

And our last headline takes us just south of Kansas, to Oklahoma. Congresswoman Diane Watson of California introduced a bill in the House yesterday that would sever all federal ties to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. That includes their ability to operate gaming facilities. The bill comes, she says, after Cherokee recently stripped 2,800 black Cherokees of their tribal citizenship. Known as Freedman, these blacks are descended from slaves once owned by the Nation. I spoke both with Congresswoman Watson and a representative of the Cherokee Nation. First, here's Diane Watson.

Representative DIANE WATSON (Democrat, California): What they're doing is trying to purify the race when they agreed through the Department of Interior that they would include in their Nation all their former slaves. And since that time, slaves have married, Cherokees and their children and grandchildren and so on, were considered as Cherokees. So what I'm doing in the bill that I have just drafted(ph) is saying that we will sever. The United States is to sever all relationships, including financial and otherwise, until the Cherokee Nation is in full compliance with all the treaty obligations and other statutes.

COX: Now, what kind of money are we talking about? After all, if they are a sovereign nation, what kind of financial relationship does the Cherokee Nation have with the United States?

Rep. WATSON: The Department of Interior annually give somewhere around $300 million to the Cherokee Nation, taxpayer's money. And so what my bill is saying, you do what you want to do but you cannot get money through the Department of Interior as long as you're discriminating against the freedmen.

COX: Why did it take a bill from you, a member of Congress, as opposed to someone in the Department of the Interior, specifically from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to handle this within the framework of the government?

Rep. WATSON: That's a great question, Tony. As soon as we found out about it, we wrote a letter to the Department of Interior and they said, we'll look into it. Well, they have dragged their feet. And finally, we had a meeting right here in Congress with a small group that was appointed by the Congressional Black Caucus because there is an election coming up on June 23rd. And we want to be sure that those that were disenfranchised are able to vote for the new leadership of the Cherokee Nation.

COX: Well, they are, apparently, according to a ruling just the other day by a district court judge, which denied an injunction, I guess, preventing the election from taking place. And my reading of it is that the freedmen will be able to vote. Am I correct or incorrect about this?

Rep. WATSON: No. They will be allowed to vote for tribal leaders. However, the freedman's rights as members remain severely restricted and they cannot run for office and registration of freedman still remain suspended. In addition, the election is being held in violation of the Principle Chiefs Act, which requires a Cherokee leadership to submit its voting requirements to the Department of Interior. And so they still, they might be able to vote in that election but they are restricted in the ways I just mentioned.

COX: Two more things before we let you go. One is this: What about other Indian nations, is this a problem with other...

Rep. WATSON: Well, the Seminoles tried it before, and the Supreme Court threw it out. And so the Cherokees are trying it again. And so we just said, listen, we're not going to allow you to take taxpayer's money to discriminate against freedmen and their descendants. And so we're not only asking DOI to sever all relations, but we're asking the Department of Interior to submit a report to Congress on the status of freedmen in all five nations. You know, they're not only in the nation there in Oklahoma but other places where they exist. And it also - the legislation also suspends the Cherokee Nation's right to conduct gaming operations until it complies with all of its treaties and its statutory obligations.

COX: Here's my final question. Because you are a congressperson from Los Angeles, California, there are a lot of Indians here in California but I don't know that there are any Cherokee Nations here. How did you get to be the person carrying this legislation?

Rep. WATSON: Because I have Indian blood. We're descendants of Pocahontas. Not this Pocahontas as far as the Cherokees, but since we have Indian blood, it does happen among our nation as well.

COX: Congresswoman Diane Watson, thank you so much for coming on. I appreciate it.

Rep. WATSON: It's good to talk to you, Tony, and let's do it again.

COX: U.S. Congresswoman Diane Watson of California. Now, for the other side of the story, I'm joined by Mike Miller, a spokesman for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Mike, thanks for coming on.

Mr. MIKE MILLER (Director of Communications, Cherokee Nation): I'm glad to do it, Tony.

COX: Congresswoman Watson calls this issue of citizenship for the freedmen a sort of ethnic cleansing in an effort to purify the race - those are her words. Why is it an issue for the Cherokees?

Mr. MILLER: Well, first, the comments would be funny if they weren't so serious. The Cherokee Nation is well known around the country for being very inclusive Indian tribe. We have citizens of African-American descent certainly and really of all sorts of ethnic backgrounds. But the key is, to be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, you have to have an Indian ancestor. You have to be Indian to be in our Indian tribe.

And so that's really fundamental to more than 500 Indian tribes around the country that in something that people generally understand that an Indian tribe has something unique about it and that it's made up of Indians.

And so that's where we are today and that's either question about why is this important to the Cherokee Nation? It's important to every government, what your citizen base is. It's important to the citizens themselves. You see that in the United States today.

COX: What is the test?

Mr. MILLER: The test for citizenship is really very simple. We have about 100 years ago, a census of Cherokee-Indian state in Oklahoma. If you have one ancestor on that roll that was a Cherokee Indian or an Indian listed on that roll, then today you are a citizen.

COX: Just for clarification purposes, Mike. What again is the current citizenship status of the African-American freedmen Cherokee Indian? I'm not sure how quite how to put it all (unintelligible).

Mr. MILLER: It's a complicated issue. I mean, there's definitely at least two groups of freedmen descendants that freed men - descendants of former slaves and there are - there's a larger group of former slaves that are Cherokee citizens today.

They have Indian, because they have an Indian ancestor. There's another group and that has - there's no debate, there's no status change ever been contemplated because they have an Indian ancestor. They've meet(ph) all enrollment criteria. There's another group that receives citizenship status about a year ago of non-Indian citizens who were listed on a separate roll of non-Indian freed men 100 years ago.

In our tribal court, a year ago, made a ruling set our Constitution included non-Indian citizens. The people, the Cherokee people voted on that in March. They said that they disagreed with the court; they amended the Constitution to change the constitution to make it, the Cherokee Nation and Indian tribe made up of Indians.

And then we began the appeal process and so the status today is that under that appeal process, non-Indian descendants of freedmen are citizens today in the Cherokee Nation.

What we're talking about today really is who decides who's an Indian tribe. Is it the Indians? Is it the government of the Indian tribe or is - or should non-Indians be part of the Indian tribe and that's really the fundamental question that we're dealing with.

COX: What's your response to the move by Watson and others to cut off all federal funding to Oklahoma Cherokees over the citizenship issue and how far are you prepared to take this fight?

Mr. MILLER: Well, our response, of course, is one of concern. We feel that the bill has been introduced based on very fundamental misunderstanding of what's going on.

These people understood that this bill is going to cut off funding to, certainly, African-American Cherokees, certainly, Cherokees of all levels of ethnicities. That would be one thing, but what we really - is confusing is that currently in our tribal courts, there's an appeal process for non-Indian freedmen descendants who are appealing their citizenship status.

And pending that decision, they have - for citizenship right. So what this bill does is actually cut off funding for the very people that Diane Watson claims she's trying to help. Those people that are non-Indian freedmen have rights today. They can vote, they can go to our health clinics, they can participate in any of our programs today. And those are the programs that (unintelligible) kept with funding.

The - this is a solution that doesn't help anyone. And so it doesn't really make a lot of sense, we're concerned about it. We hope that other members of Congress will understand that there is no need to put hardship to the very people that they think that they're trying to help.

COX: Mike Miller, thank you very much.

MILLER: Okay.

COX: Mike Miller is a spokesman for the Oklahoma Cherokee Nation.

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