Congresswoman Watson Attacks the Cherokee Nation

Before anyone starts to complain about the perceived mess in the backyard of their neighbor, perhaps they should clean up their own backyard first.

This is particularly true in the case of the accusation leveled by Ms. Watson against the Cherokee Nation. Ms. Watson wrote, "The citizens of the Cherokee Nation voted last March to expel their black citizens in a manner that equaled if not surpassed the most vitriolic attack against African Americans in the once segregated South."

She then goes on to justify this untrue statement by bringing up an ancient historical fact that certain Indian tribes were slave owners. "As an independently recognized nation in the 19th Century, the Cherokee Nation embraced and promoted African slavery."

I wonder if Ms. Watson has ever visited the Cherokee Nation? If she did she would soon see that there are many Cherokee citizens of African American heritage living and working amongst the other Cherokee citizens.

When Oklahoma became a State one of its first acts was to take Cherokee lands, allot them to individual tribal members, not in trust, but by restricted fee. The allotees were given an option to take 40 acres of their 160 acre restricted fee allotments as homesteads to be held in restricted fee status for 21 years. The remaining 120 acres would be held in restricted fee status for three years. After that the county could tax the 120 acres, worse yet, non-Indian squatters could move on the 120 acres and eventually claim title through adverse possession. Today it is not uncommon to see 40 acre allotted tracts owned by Indians while whites own the remaining 120 acres.

Scheme after scheme by the white-controlled state and national governments were set into motion to divest the Cherokee and the other Indian nations of their lands. These actions violated every treaty ever signed between the Indian nations and the United States of America. The American government broke every treaty, including the Treaty of 1866 that Congresswoman Watson is so fond of quoting. Whether the 1866 Treaty granted citizenship to the Freedmen and their descendants is mute. The American government saw to that.

When the question of whether the Freedman were citizens of the Cherokee Nation was put on the ballot in March of 2007, 76 percent of the citizens of the Cherokee Nation voted NO. Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Chad Smith said, "We believe the Treaty of 1866 never granted citizenship to the Freedmen and their descendants and that we have fully complied with our treaty obligations. We also believe that the Congress clarified that today's Freedmen descendants are not entitled to citizenship in the Nation by passing the Five Tribes Act in 1906. Regardless of what Congress believes, this issue is before the courts."

Congresswoman Watson hails from the mighty State of California. If she had bothered to look around in her own backyard she would have noticed that some of the most notorious actions of disenrollment of tribal members by sitting tribal governments is happening right under her nose. Several hundred former members of California tribes have been kicked out in the cold without apparent comment or action by Ms. Watson. Why then is she making herself such a thorn in the side of the people of the Cherokee Nation? I am pretty certain that there are a few thousand Indian people in her own state that wish she would pay attention to their state of disenrollment.

Congresswoman Watson's bill calls for the de facto termination of the Cherokee Nation and does away with $300 million in federal health, housing and other vital services provided to the Nation through their treaty rights. The Cherokee Nation has the same rights as the other more than 500 Indian nations to choose their own membership without fear of termination based on the false and erroneous beliefs of a Congresswoman from California.

Chief Smith said, "The Cherokee Nation will abide by the outcome of the ongoing litigation in the federal and tribal courts. Before rushing to judgment, we hope Congress will also let the courts decide this issue without political interference." Amen, I say to that.

I believe Congress has more important things to do than to interfere in the legal rights of the Indian nations. But if Ms. Watson is so keen on making judgments against the people of the Cherokee Nation, I suggest that she be just as adamant in her condemnation of other Indian nations, particularly those in her own state of California where disenrollment has become a way of life.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991 and founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at