Rep. Watson: Speech at Freedmen conference
Rep. Diane Watson (D-California) spoke at the Descendants of Freedmen Association 5th Annual Conference in Oklahoma on June 7.

Watson is sponsoring H.R.2824, a bill to cut federal funds to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma until the tribe restores the Freedmen to citizenship. The Freedmen are descendants of former African slaves held within the tribe.

Watson defended the legislation during her speech. A copy, as released by her office, is reprinted below.


I want to thank Dr. Haysbert, President of Langston University, Rhonda Grayson, Conference Chair, and Marilyn Vann, President of the Freedmen’s Association, for inviting me to address the Descendants of Freedmen Association’s 5th Annual Conference. I also want to thank Jon Velie, the Freedmen’s chief counsel, and Wayne Thompson for their assistance to me and my staff. Their expertise and knowledge has been invaluable. Finally, I want to thank Eli Grayson for his incredible support for the Freedmen cause.

Some issues never die. They fade away and lay dormant for years, even decades, and once again rear their ugly heads with renewed vigor. Such is the condition of the Freedmen and the current controversy over Freedmen citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.

I first became aware of the Cherokee Freedmen in early March 2007, after the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma voted to expel the majority of Freedmen citizens from the Nation. In response to the March 3 vote, 25 of my congressional colleagues and I sent a letter to Carl Artman, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, requesting his interpretation of the legality of the vote.

Assistant Secretary Artman responded a month later with what is best described as a non-response. Artman wrote, and I quote, “The Department…is studying the many issues surrounding this evolving matter. We are concerned about the ramifications this will have on the Freedmen of the Cherokee Nation and will continue our careful evaluation of all facets of the matter.”

I have held political office long enough to know that when a government official talks about “studying” an issue, it is a sign that he or she wants to bury and lay it to rest. I was determined that the Freedmen would not be subjected to such a cruel fate and instructed my staff to draft legislation.

In June 2007, I introduced H.R. 2824, legislation that severs U.S. government relations with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma until such time as the Nation restores full tribal citizenship to the Cherokee Freedmen disenfranchised in the March 2, 2007 Cherokee Nation vote. Twenty four members of Congress have cosponsored the legislation. It has been referred to the Committees on Judiciary and Natural Resources.

I remain hopeful that Congressman John Conyers, a cosponsor of my bill and Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Congressman Nick Rahall, Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, will hold joint committee hearings on the Freedmen. If any issue deserves congressional oversight in the light of day, it is the Freedmen issue. It is something the Cherokee leadership does not want. Sunshine is truly the best antiseptic.

Over the past year, the Cherokee leadership has spent in excess of $10 million dollars lobbying against the Freedmen in Washington, D.C. It has hired a number of expensive D.C. lobbying firms and a stable of high-priced lawyers to argue its case in U.S. Federal District Court. Chad Smith, the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, travels back and forth between his base in Talequah and the U.S. Capitol in a private chartered jet. He oversees a corporate empire that receives $300 million yearly from the federal government and more that $400 million from its federally chartered gaming operations. Three quarters of one billion dollars is not an insignificant amount of money by any standard. Many well-healed corporations operate with much less capital on hand.

I find it incredulous that the Cherokee Nation would spend $10 million dollars to lobby against a small minority of its citizens, 2,800 Freedmen by its own calculation, out of a total Cherokee population of 300,000. Why, I must ask, is the Cherokee Nation so intent on ridding itself of people like Bernice Riggs -- a descendant of humorist Will Rogers and Clem Vann Rogers, a noted Cherokee leader -- who suffers from Alzheirmer’s in a nursing home unsupported by Indian Health Services medical benefits? Is it because Ms. Riggs is a Freedmen descendant, who Chad Smith will declare to her face and the world is non-Indian? I’m certain that it would cost a mere pittance of $10 million dollars to tend to Bernice Riggs needs or the needs of other poor Freedmen who have been denied services and benefits by Chad Smith.

One of the many myths put forward by the Cherokee Nation’s propaganda machine is that Freedmen only want to become citizens of the Cherokee Nation to take advantage of the Nation’s federal benefits and gaming proceeds. You and I know this is not true. Most Freedmen, as is the case with the vast majority of Cherokee citizens, do not qualify for federal benefits dispensed by the tribe. But those who qualify for benefits, such as Bernice Riggs, certainly should receive them.

You and I know that the Freedmen’s motivation is not financial. It is about preserving the historical record and setting it straight. We know that a man without a history is like a tree without roots. And we know that the intent of Chad Smith and others is to engage in the worst form of historical revisionism by denying Freedmen their rightful place as citizens of the Cherokee Nation. The Freedmen seek to reclaim their history, nothing more and nothing less.

Freedmen want history to record that they too walked the Trail of Tears and suffered through the hardships of removal with the red badge of slavery attached to their chests. Freedmen want history to record that they were made citizens of the Cherokee Nation in 1866—along with the Shawnee, Delaware, and intermarried whites—and that it was the only citizenship they would have until Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Freedmen want history to record that they, like other Cherokee citizens, voted and ran for political office and that as many as six Freedmen were elected and served on the Cherokee National Council. And Freedmen want history to record, in the words of Professor Daniel Littlefield, “that the Cherokee Nation was a multi-racial, multi-cultural constitutional nation, whose citizenship was based not on blood or culture but on either birth or adoption.”

Freedmen seek to destroy the myths offered up by Chad Smith and others in their defense of the indefensible. It is past time for Mr. Smith and the Cherokee leadership to face the facts. But it appears the longer the Freedmen issue lingers, the greater is their descent into misstatements, misunderstanding, half-truths, and hyperbole.

Let me discuss just a few of these myths with you:

Myth Number One: H.R. 2824 is a termination bill.

This is Mr. Smith’s standard stump speech. He says that H.R. 2824 is a termination bill. But it is not a termination bill. Let me state that again: H.R. 2824 is not a termination bill. It does not overturn U.S. recognition of the Cherokee Nation. It simply cuts off funds to the Nation until it meets its treaty obligations. There is not one word, group of words, phrases, or paragraphs in the legislation that discuss or call for termination of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Myth Number 2: To be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, one must find an Indian ancestor listed on the federally authorized Dawes Rolls of the Cherokees.

First, the fact is that the roll made by the Dawes Commission was a roll of all Cherokee citizens according to the means by which they acquired citizenship—by either blood or adoption. The Cherokee Nation’s agreement with the Dawes Commission stated that “The roll of citizens of the Cherokee nation shall be made…and the names of all persons then living and entitled to enrollment on that date shall be placed on said roll by the Commission of the Five Civilized Tribes.” The Commission made no reference to “citizens by blood” as being the only legitimate citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

Second, Chief Smith makes much of blood quantum and that only descendants who can trace an ancestor back to the blood Dawes Rolls are entitled to Cherokee citizenship. But what Mr. Smith fails to acknowledge is that the Dawes Rolls were compiled as part of a national effort to divest Native Americans of their tribal lands. Blood quantum, rooted in the virulent racism of the 19th Century -- which said that the whiter one was, the more civilized he was – was recorded by the Dawes Commission to determine the applicant’s competency. Dawes Roll registrants who were more than half Cherokee were judged incompetent to manage their own affairs and became wards of the Department of Interior. Over one hundred years later, Chad Smith has hitched the future of the Cherokee Nation to a deeply flawed and highly racist construct.

Finally, Chief Smith states the issue at hand is Cherokee identity and who is Indian and that this is a matter of tribal sovereignty. It is not. The issue is the Treaty of 1866 and whether the Cherokee Nation can violate the Treaty of 1866, which granted the descendants of former Cherokee slaves all the rights of Cherokee citizenship.

Myth Number 3: There is no such thing as a termination effort against the Freedmen.

The Cherokee Nation terminated the membership rights of Cherokee Freedmen in 1983. The Freedmen challenged their termination in U.S. District Court in Vann v. Kempthorne in 2003. It is still pending. In 2006, the Cherokee Court ruled in the Allen decision that the denial of Freedmen citizenship and the right to vote was unconstitutional. After the decision, the Cherokee Nation began enrolling Freedmen for a period from March 2006 to March 2007.

Since the March 2007 vote, the Cherokee Nation has ceased registration of Freedmen, despite the fact that many descendants of the 2,800 enrolled Freedmen have applied. They have no access to the Cherokee Nation’s medical, educational, housing and other benefits that stem from the $300 million the Nation receives annually.

The Freedmen that hold citizenship are now in ‘limbo” status. They are called “Non-Indians” by Chad Smith and the Cherokee Administration and are the focus of a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign to deny their Cherokee identity.

This sounds and looks like termination to me.

Myth # 4: The Cherokee Nation did not own slaves.

The Cherokee Nation regulated slavery and passed slave codes prior to the Civil War. Cherokee Nation slave masters held more slaves than any other Indian Nation, as many as 4,000 at one point. The Nation enacted strict slave codes and brutally suppressed a slave revolt in 1842. The Cherokee Nation leadership fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War in part to preserve the institution of slavery. It’s true that the majority of Cherokees did not own slaves. It is also true that Cherokee Nation as a whole benefited financially from the free labor of its slave population.

The myths put forward by the Cherokee Nation explain why it has not made a coherent argument as to why it can dispose of the citizenship of its people in spite of a treaty. It explains why the Cherokee Nation’s leadership values citizenship so little that it is not regarded as an inherent birthright and can be taken by the whim of the majority.

The Chief’s argument that Congress should not act is not supported by law or equity. Congress has a legitimate oversight role to play in how taxpayers’ dollars are spent. That is why I will continue to push for congressional hearings on this issue.

But the battle for the rights of Freedmen cannot be won by me or other members of Congress alone. The real battle must be waged by you here in Oklahoma. I have come to learn that most African Americans in Oklahoma are related to Freedmen. It is up to you to take ownership in this issue. After all, it is your history.

You may not have $10 million dollars available. But court, legislative, and human rights battles are not won by money alone. They are won through constant advocacy. You must write letters, not only to Members of Congress but to the tribal chiefs to educate them about the Freedmen. You need to get in your cars and travel to Washington, D.C. and walk the hallways of Congress, visiting as many congressional offices as you can. You also need to lobby your local legislators here in Oklahoma City and across Oklahoma.

When you are finished doing all that, you need to write more letters and get in your cars again to visit your local representatives and the Capitol.

Winning the battle for the rights of Freedmen will take persistence, strength, endurance, and fortitude. The Cherokee Nation’s strategy is obvious: just outlast the opposition; the opposition will eventually tire of the issue. When they tire and lose interest, the Cherokee Nation will be poised to eliminate Freedmen from the tribe and from its history books.

You hold the fate of the Freedmen in your own hands. Don’t let it slip due to inaction or fear. The Freedmen ghosts of Joseph Brown, Stick Ross, Ned Irons, Frank Vann, Samuel Stidham, and Jerry Alberty are watching. They are depending on you. Please don’t let them down.

Thank you.


Cherokee-Related Legislation:
H.R.2786 | H.R.2895 | H.R.2824 | H.R.3002

BIA Letters:
August 9, 2007 | July 11, 2007 | June 22, 2007 | May 21, 2007 | March 28, 2007 | August 30, 2006

Sovereign Immunity Court Decision:
Vann v. Kempthorne (December 19, 2006)

Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal Decision in Freedmen Case:
Allen v. Cherokee Nation (March 7, 2006)

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