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National | Politics
NAHASDA clears Congress with Freedmen provision


The Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act cleared Congress on Thursday with a provision aimed at resolving a hot political issue.

The provision in H.R.2768 allows the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma to receive federal funds while a controversial case plays out in tribal court. The Cherokee Freedmen, who are the descendants of former African slaves, are suing to maintain their citizenship in the tribe.

The Freedmen are being preserved by a tribal court order that protects them from being disenrolled until the case is resolved. As long as the order stays in place, or some sort of settlement is reached, the tribe can receive federal funds, according to the bill.

But even if the case ends with the removal of the Freedmen, the bill won't punish the Cherokees. The provision allows the tribe to receive funds regardless of the outcome.

"The language in the bill is a sign that Congress recognizes the sovereignty and authority of tribal courts to settle internal disputes, which should be considered a victory for not only the Cherokee Nation but all tribes," said Cherokee Chief Chad Smith.

Lawmakers could always take action if the case goes against the Freedmen but the provision appears to resolve a controversy that threatened the bill from passage this year. Tribes around the country were worried the NAHASDA program wouldn't be reauthorized even though it expired a year ago.

The House's version of the bill would have denied funds to the tribe unless the Freedmen are restored to citizenship. The funding cut wouldn't have taken effect if the Freedmen won the case.

The Senate's version didn't include any language regarding the Cherokees. When the House and Senate got together to resolve the differences, the new provision was developed.

Smith credited Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) for "proposing this solution in a way that is not punitive to Cherokees who need housing assistance, since the matter is still being decided in a court of law."

Dorgan and Murkowski are chairman and vice chairwoman, respectively, of the Senate Indian Affairs Indian Committee, which discharged the new version of NAHASDA yesterday, just in time for the Senate to take action. Coburn also serves on the committee.

"There is a bona-fide crisis in housing for Indian families across the nation," said Dorgan. "Adequate housing is the first and most necessary step in building a strong community. This bill is more than just a housing act -- it will give tribes more authority over their own land and truly help build stronger communities in Indian Country."

The bill will go to the White House for President Bush's consideration.

The provision at issue reads:
SEC. 801. LIMITATION ON USE FOR CHEROKEE NATION. No funds authorized under this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, or appropriated pursuant to an authorization under this Act or such amendments, shall be expended for the benefit of the Cherokee Nation; provided, that this limitation shall not be effective if the Temporary Order and Temporary Injunction issued on May 14, 2007, by the District Court of the Cherokee Nation remains in effect during the pendency of litigation or there is a settlement agreement which effects the end of litigation among the adverse parties.

Recent D.C. Circuit Decision:
Vann v. Kempthorne (July 29, 2008)

Related Stories:
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Freedmen dispute continues despite court decision (7/30)
Cherokee officials open to lawsuit from Freedmen (7/29)
Appeals court hears Cherokee Freedmen dispute (5/7)
Cherokee Freedmen dispute a threat to NAHASDA (4/24)
Freedmen issue weighs heavy on Capitol Hill (4/14)
Tim Giago: CBC goes after Cherokee Nation (4/14)
Cherokee Freedmen dispute up for hearing (3/27)
Cherokee Nation faulted on Freedmen (10/1)
House approves NAHASDA reauthorization (9/7)