Scorched-Earth Policy Again

In 1770, 5,000 American militiamen rode through the Cherokee Nation burning villages and crops to the ground driving thousands of Cherokees, young, old and infirm, into the mountains. Today, Congresswoman Diane Watson attempts to repeat history with another scorched-earth policy aimed at hurting the most vulnerable Cherokee Indians: the young, old and infirm.

Congresswoman Watson's blog entry ("Jim Crow in Indian Country," October 25, 2007) misled readers about the Cherokee Nation's March vote to limit citizenship in the tribe to those with Indian ancestry on the federal base rolls of our people.

The Congresswoman is entitled to her opinion, but she is not entitled to her opinion based on invented facts. It is an injustice to the fundamental principles at stake on both sides when opinions mislead about or omit all together indisputable facts.

Her charge that the Cherokee Nation's March vote was about race is absolutely false. The "Jim Crow" reference in the headline was especially vicious and hurtful. If the Congresswoman was not responsible for the headline, then she has the responsibility to repudiate it.

The Cherokee Nation is one of the most diverse Indian tribes and continues to be so after the March vote. We have thousands of black, Latino, Asian, and white citizens because each has a Cherokee ancestor. Our people only want our Indian tribe to be what we were for well over 1,000 years: an Indian tribe comprised of descendants of Indians.

Consequently, the Nation's vote simply requires a person to identify a single Indian ancestor on the federally established rolls of our people taken in 1906 known as the Dawes Rolls. This means that approximately 1,500 descendants of former slaves who are known as Freedmen descendants are Cherokee citizens today because each has an Indian ancestor on the Dawes Rolls.

Why did the Nation hold this vote? The vote was actually a culmination of tribal action that has been taken over the last three decades to re-establish the Cherokee Nation and prosper after enduring a century of federal policies from the 1860s to the 1960s aimed at destroying Indian tribes. Having survived those policies, and after having survived all that came before them, the Nation simply felt a communal desire to return to our roots as a people.

In addition to omitting these important facts that make her thesis baseless, Congresswoman Watson failed to mention that the Nation will help any Freedman descendant learn whether they have Indian ancestry on our base rolls through the funding of genealogical research.

Congresswoman Watson also made false statements regarding slavery. As the Congresswoman has heard, the Cherokee Nation did not own slaves, and less than two percent of Cherokee citizens held slaves. Moreover, two-thirds of the Cherokee Nation fought for the Union during the Civil War, and the Nation voluntarily emancipated the slaves in 1863 -- two years before the Civil War ended.

Congresswoman Watson says the Treaty of 1866 gave citizenship in the Cherokee Nation to the Freedmen descendants. We disagree, and this is a primary question that is being decided in federal and tribal courts today -- a fact that is never mentioned in her piece.

We believe the Treaty of 1866 never granted citizenship to 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 the Congress believes, this issue is before the courts.

Even despite our disagreement, the Cherokee Nation supported a court order giving disenrolled Freedmen descendants critical social and health services and the right to vote until all litigation is resolved. As a Nation of laws that recognizes the fact that our March vote raises an equity issue for those who were disenrolled, we felt that reinstating them to citizenship while the courts do their work was the right thing to do.

Congresswoman Watson's bill retaliates against our people's will to define ourselves as an Indian nation -- the same sovereign right that 500 other tribes have. The bill calls for de facto termination of the Cherokee Nation and eliminates $300 million in federal health, housing and other vital services for the neediest Cherokees, including many of the 2,800 Freedmen descendants who were affected by the March vote.

The history of U.S.-Cherokee relations is paved with tragedy. How tragic it would be if, in this day and age, Congresswoman Watson's bill -- which is based on such faulty factual and historical assumptions -- were to create a modern Trail of Tears for the Cherokee Nation. Even more tragic is that such an action could come at the hands of a representative of one of our historic allies in the struggle for civil rights.

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.