U.S. Rep. Barney Frank has asked the federal government to cut off housing funds to the Cherokee Nation and restore tribal citizenship to black Cherokees.
The Massachusetts Democrat made the requests in Aug. 26 letters to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Department of Housing and Urban Development after the tribe’s top court ruled earlier that descendants of Cherokee Freedmen were not entitled to citizenship, despite the language of an 1866 treaty that granted those rights to the descendants of the tribe’s slaves.
“I do not believe the federal government should continue to fund the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma if it is blatantly violating the rights of some members,” Frank wrote to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, whom the congressman asked to “act appropriately to prevent any funding from the federal government for tribal housing.”
Elena Gaona, a HUD spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the $29 million in housing funds that the Cherokee Nation was slated to receive this fiscal year has not been released and will not be until the freedmen citizenship issue is resolved.
Frank’s other letter asks Larry Echo Hawk, head of the BIA, to “take appropriate action to protect the rights of the Cherokee Freedmen.”
In a brief interview, Frank explained Echo Hawk has “the authority to enforce the rights of the Freedmen. BIA should be taking an active role in forcing the Cherokee to treat them as full members of the tribe.”
BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
A few years ago, the Cherokee Nation lobbied hard to block efforts by members of the Congressional Black Caucus to cut off funding to the tribe over the freedmen issue.
On Aug. 22, the Cherokee Supreme Court ruled that a lower court did not have the authority to overturn a 2007 referendum approving an amendment to the tribe’s constitution that stripped nearly all freedmen descendants of citizenship or eligibility for it.
The Freedmen’s Association estimates only 10 percent of 28,000 descendants retain their rights because an ancestor with Cherokee blood was identified in a federal census taken early in the 20th century.
The court also ruled that a provision of the 1866 treaty did not grant citizenship to the tribe’s freed slaves, but a constitutional amendment later that year did. Since the tribe granted citizenship, the majority in the 4-1 decision argued, the tribe could take it away.
The treaty restored sovereign relations between the United States and Cherokee Nation, whose government at first supported the Confederacy before switching sides. Some Cherokees continued to fight alongside southern forces; the last Confederate general to surrender was a Cherokee.
Provisions of the treaty freed the Cherokees’ slaves and declared that they and their descendants “shall have all the rights of Native Cherokee.” That clause has long been interpreted as the equivalent of the 14th Amendment, which granted American citizenship to the country’s freed slaves.
The Cherokee Supreme Court disputed that traditional interpretation, arguing instead that the provision conferred protection to the freedmen under federal law. At the time, they were not American citizens, nor were Cherokees by blood.
The decision came about a month before a replay of a Cherokee election for chief. The first one in June between then-Chief Chad Smith and challenger Bill John Baker was so close that several counts could not determine the winner. The supreme court ordered a new vote on Sept. 24.
Smith has actively opposed freedmen citizenship. Baker has not publicly taken a side on the issue, but has the support of two blood Cherokees who are prominent advocates of freedmen rights.
Frank told Donovan and Echo Hawk he was particularly troubled because the court’s decision appeared designed to influence the election’s outcome.
Asked why he is involved with the issue, Frank replied: “From my earliest days in politics, I’ve considered race one of the single most important problems. I think fighting racism is important.”
Lawyers for freedmen descendants filed a lawsuit Sept. 2 in Washington, D.C. asking a federal judge to issue an injunction to stop the Cherokee Nation from denying their tribal rights and holding any chief’s election that excludes them as voters.
The lawsuit also seeks an injunction against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar requiring him to halt federal funding to the Cherokee Nation, withhold recognition of any chief’s election and sever sovereign relations with the tribe until it restores freedmen’s rights and until Salazar reviews its election procedures under a federal law. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is part of the Interior Department.
A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled Sept. 20, four days before the election.
“Federal Courts have held consistently from 1895 through 2010 in the Vann decision in the D.C. Court of Appeals that the freedmen were granted citizenship under the Treaty of 1866,” said Jon Velie, lead attorney for freedmen descendants.
The Muskogee (Okla.) Phoenix quoted the Cherokee attorney general, Diane Hammons, as saying numerous issues about the court’s jurisdiction remain before the case can be heard.