Posted on May 5, 2009

Dems Call for DOJ Probe of Indian Tribes

Kevin Bogardus, The Hill, May 4, 2009

A civil rights controversy surrounding several Indian tribes could pit President Obama against some of Capitol Hill’s most prominent liberals and black lawmakers.

Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), John Lewis (D-Ga.) and others asked Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter dated last Thursday to initiate a “full-scale investigation” of five Indian tribes for allegedly abusing the rights of the Freedmen: African-Americans descended from freed slaves once owned by Indians.

Also signing onto the letter were other senior lawmakers from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), including Reps. Diane Watson (D-Calif.), Shelia Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the caucus’s chairwoman.

“Over forty years after enactment of the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, there is a place in the United States that African Americans cannot vote or receive federal benefits as a matter of law,” the letter states. “The victims of this racial oppression are known as freedmen, who are descendants of African slaves owned by Indians. They are called freedmen, but they are anything but free.”

The call for an aggressive investigation of the tribes by Congress could force Obama to contradict a position he took on the campaign trail last year.

In the spring of 2008, the then-Illinois senator helped solidify his Native American support by arguing against Washington intervening in a dispute involving a group of Freedmen and the leaders of the Cherokee Nation. The Freedmen had been expelled from the tribe after it amended its constitution in March 2007.

The CBC had begun targeting the Cherokee for that decision, pushing legislation to cut off public housing funding for the tribe.


Reacting to the letter, representatives for the tribes said they have followed the law and have not abused the rights of anyone.

“You have to have Creek blood to be a citizen of our nation. We do have a lot of black people who are members,” said Chief A.B. Ellis of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

“This letter shows that, when it comes to the Cherokee Nation, its signatories do not care about the facts or what’s happening in the federal courts. As the Cherokee Nation has explained to more than 100 members of Congress through meetings, this issue has never been about race but only about who is a citizen of an Indian nation,” said Mike Miller, a spokesman for the Cherokee.

Bill Anoatubby, governor of the Chickasaw Nation, also said his tribe had not discriminated against anyone. {snip}s

The lawmakers asked for an investigation into a group of tribes–known as the Five Civilized Tribes–that had good relations with settlers during colonial times but were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma.

Originally, the CBC had concentrated only on the Cherokee, since they recently amended their constitution to exclude the Freedmen. A court order has given the Freedmen temporary Cherokee citizenship as the dispute weaves its way through the federal courts.

At issue is how the rights of the Freedmen–estimated to number 100,000 to 150,000 among the five tribes–should be treated by Indian leaders.

The lawmakers have argued several tribes signed treaties with the federal government after the Civil War that would afford citizenship rights to the freed slaves. They would be treated as full members, earning the applicable benefits and being allowed to vote in tribal elections.

But Indian leaders have disagreed. Several have held elections to change their tribal constitutions to exclude the Freedmen. They believe any action from Washington would interfere with their tribal sovereignty and thus would be unjust.