Steve Russell: Cherokee Nation breaks its word

"How can the Cherokee Nation take the position that the U.S. cannot abrogate Indian treaties by implication but claim that Cherokees have done so in an election where treaty abrogation was not on the ballot and every time it was brought up tribal officials denied it? Their argument, if I understand it, is that the treaty never uses the word ''citizenship.'' The treaty provision is above, and it is fair to ask what is unclear about ''all the rights of native Cherokees''?

What does it matter to Indian country if the Cherokee Nation violates a treaty with the United States? I have already felt the impact, as I can no longer tell my students that Indians have kept their word in the face of perfidy. As Justice Black wrote, ''Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.'' When Cherokees lose that argument, so do all Indians. That's not fair, but that's the fact of American politics.

As we speak, the Cherokee Nation Web site complains that we are facing ''termination.'' If I read my history correctly, the termination era was when the United States ceased government-to-government relations with Indian nations. What Congress proposes to do about the Cherokee treaty violation is withhold money that in the world of sovereignty could be called ''foreign aid.'' Congress says to Cherokees that our government may disregard treaty obligations, but not on America's dime. Sounds like a fair resolution to me, but it all depends on what the words mean.

Whether it's fair or not, the power to do it exists, and the only thing between the lied to Cherokee people and that power is a Cherokee Supreme Court that has the power to tell the Cherokee government if it intends to abrogate a treaty by referendum then the referendum question must give notice in words that admit no other interpretation."

Get the Story:
Steve Russell: Treaties in a world of contested discourse (Indian Country Today 2/8)

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