Cherokees fight back against freedmen legislation

Tulsa_The Cherokee Nation is rolling out a public relations campaign in response to federal lawmakers who say the tribe should be denied benefits unless it recognizes descendants of its former black slaves.

The campaign includes two Web sites discussing a 2007 referendum in which Cherokees decided to remove about 2,800 freedmen descendants and other non-Indians from tribal rolls, said Mike Miller, spokesman for the nation.

The sites also address what's at stake if the congressional lawmakers have their way: denial of $300 million in federal money to the country's second-largest American Indian tribe. The money pays for health clinics, Head Start programs, elderly care and housing assistance.

Tribal leaders say that if funding is cut off, more than 6,000 nation employees could lose their jobs, touching off a ripple effect that would devastate the economy of northeastern Oklahoma.

"People need a place where they can go for calm, rational facts on the issue, without hyperbole and without a political slant," Miller said Wednesday. "What we've tried to put on here are some very straightforward things we've proven time and time again as facts."

But an advocate for rights of the former slaves, known as freedmen, accused the nation of resorting to "propaganda."

Marilyn Vann, president of Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, criticized the campaign, saying, "Anybody with money can put information out there that's not correct."

"I am very disappointed they continue to waste the taxpayers' money on these things," Vann said. "As long as they have that money, they will continue to do it."

U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, a California Democrat who claims Indian blood and Oklahoma ties, introduced legislation last year to cut off federal funding to the nation unless it recognized the freedmen descendants.

For decades, descendants of slaves to Cherokees who were freed fought to reclaim their citizenship, even though they were adopted into the tribe in 1866 under a treaty with the U.S. government.

A ruling in 2006 by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court held that the Cherokee constitution assured freedmen descendants of tribal citizenship. That led to a petition drive for a ballot measure to determine who is a citizen of the nation, which claims 280,000 members.

Last year, nearly 77 percent of Cherokee voters decided to amend their constitution to remove the freedmen descendants and other non-Indians from tribal rolls. Critics of the vote pointed out that only a fraction of the nation's tribal citizens - about 9,000 - cast ballots.

While the debate over who is a Cherokee citizen continues in federal and tribal court, the government's proposal to punish the poorest of the tribe before courts make any ruling is not the solution, Miller said.

"Enron probably did some things that Congress didn't like; did they ever get a $300 million fine?" he said. "We're talking about hurting people who have very few resources."


On the Net:

Cherokee Citizenship:

Meet Cherokee Nation Citizens:

Descendants of Freedmen:

Justin Juozapavicius © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.