By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
The Cherokee Nation is feeling the pinch of a tribal court’s opinion that upheld a constitutional amendment that excludes citizenship to “non-Indian freedmen descendants.”
The Aug. 22 decision prompted a decision by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to withhold $33 million from the tribe.
The federal agency’s decision threatens the jobs of 300 to 500 Cherokee Nation employees. Another 1,700 families could lose rent assistance benefits.
Acting Principal Chief S. Joe Crittenden said the tribe has sufficient funds “to carry it through a few months with no effect on HUD-related services or employment positions.”
“The attorney general for the Cherokee Nation and my legal team are working aggressively to resolve this matter,” Crittenden said, noting the tribe is in compliance with HUD provisions. “We are confident that future federal funding will continue once the issues are resolved.”
HUD’s decision to freeze the tribe’s housing funds comes on the heels of the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court’s decision that effectively removed about 2,800 freedmen descendants from tribal rolls.
Four of the five judges on the court held it lacked jurisdiction to overturn a constitutional amendment approved by Cherokee votes in 2007. The amendment requires proof of Cherokee lineage by blood before citizenship is granted.
Cherokee freedmen argue their ancestors were granted tribal citizenship in 1866 following the Civil War by a treaty signed by federal and tribal officials. That right of citizenship, they say, cannot be revoked unilaterally by Cherokee voters.
John A. Ketcher, a tribal elder and former deputy chief, said the freedmen have misinterpreted the treaty language.
“In Article Nine of the peace treaty, it says nothing about citizenship,” Ketcher said. “The word is ‘afforded all the rights of the Cherokee people.’ It doesn’t say anything about citizenship.”
Ketcher said he sees HUD’s decision — and the freedmen lawsuits pending in federal court — as an attempt by the federal government to “push us around again.”
“We’ve been docile too long,” Ketcher said. “I am going to approach my government, and we are going to fight this tooth and nail.”
Attorney General Diane Hammons, in a letter she sent Friday to HUD officials, said the decision to withhold federal housing funds is based upon an incorrect reading of federal act that guaranteed housing funds while the freedmen’s lawsuit was pending in tribal court.
That law prohibited the expenditure of federal housing funds for the Cherokee Nation unless a temporary order and injunction issued by the tribe’s district court remained in effect during the appeals process or until a settlement was reached.
“If Congress wanted to deny funding to the Cherokee Nation, it would have done so,” Hammons wrote. “Instead, Congress chose to merely require that the injunction remain effective until the case was concluded in tribal court.”
Hammons said that provision does not have anything to do with the freedmen cases pending in federal court.
While tribal officials work to reverse HUD’s ruling, the two men battling to lead the tribe for the next four years used the situation for political posturing.
Tribal Councilman Bill John Baker described the freeze on federal housing funds as evidence of former Principal Chief Chad Smith’s inability to lead the tribe.
“Chad Smith had the opportunity as chief to keep Congress from boxing us in — no matter which way the Supreme Court ruled — instead he did nothing,” Baker said in a media release. “His inability to fix the freedmen issue while he was chief ... means our nation is now scrambling to help those in need.”
Smith said the only people actively seeking to cut services to the Cherokee people “are the non-Indian freedmen descendants who publicly support Baker.”
“Bill John should ask his non-Indian freedmen friends to honor Cherokee courts and federal law,” Smith said. “Baker should fight for jobs and services for the Cherokee people rather than court the favor of non-Indians who are trying to take away every penny of federal funding.”
Cherokee voters will get a second chance to cast ballots for either Baker or Smith on Sept. 24 during precinct polling or at the Cherokee Nation Election Commission Office during the early voting period.
Freedmen descendants are trying to block that election until their voting rights are restored.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.