Some issues never die when they should have decades or even a century ago. Instead of dying they are kept alive by the power of money and influence peddling in the U.S. Congress. They are kept alive by the seductive lure of a revisionist history nurtured by the telling of untruths over and over again until people begin to believe that lies are truths. They are kept alive by the capacity of large sums of money liberally doled out to the powers that be in our nation’s capital. And they are kept alive by the curse of hatred and racism seething from our unresolved historical past. Such are the seeds of the Freedmen’s bitter harvest and the current controversy of Freedmen citizenship in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, an issue that should have been resolved, and in reality has been resolved decades, if not a century, ago.
To make my point, I refer you to an article that appeared in The New York Times on July 22, 1885, over 113 years ago. The article is entitled Freedmen Among Indians- An Attempt to Secure the Settlement of Their Claims. I quote the article in part:
“J Milton Turner, ex-United States Minister to Liberia, who went to meet the Dawes Senatorial Committee in behalf of the Cherokee freedmen at one of their sessions in the Indian Territory, states that the committee met at Vinita and examined a large number of witnesses as to the claims of 7,000 freedmen of the Cherokees who had been debarred from receiving their share of the $300,000 paid by the Cherokee Nation by the Government for land ceded to it by the Indians. The money was withheld from the freedmen on the ground that they are not of Cherokee blood. Mr. Turner’s argument before the committee was that under the treaty of 1866 freedmen have all the rights of native-born Cherokees, and he says the committee, after making a thorough examination of the whole questions, will report to Congress next Winter recommending that these freedmen shall be paid their pro rata of the $300,000, which amounts to $118,000.”
The article might as well have been written yesterday, not 113 years ago. It’s deja vu, evidence of our still unresolved historical past.
In 1885, however, Congress did not shirk its responsibility to enforce the 1866 Treaty. It stepped up to the plate and temporarily suspended the Cherokee Nation’s sovereign status in order to allow the Freedmen’s suit to recover money from the sale of Cherokee lands to be heard in the U.S. Courts.
A decade after Ambassador Turner’s inquiry, in 1895, the U.S. Courts confirmed Turner’s claim when the Court of Claims held - in a case filed by Moses Whitmire, Trustee for the Cherokee Freedmen—that the Cherokee Freedmen were entitled to share in the tribe’s land sale proceeds and the Cherokee Nation’s sovereignty could not be exercised in a manner that breached the nation’s treaty obligations to the United States. Still a decade later, in 1906, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld that the Cherokee Freedmen are citizens of the Cherokee Nation entitled to the same property rights as other members of the Cherokee Nation. (Red Bird v. United States).
This past July, the United States Court of Appeals once again upheld the centrality of the 1866 Treaty. The U.S. court of appeals decision reads, and I quote, “The Cherokee Nation shares with the United States a common stain on its history: the Cherokees owned African slaves. At the end of the Civil War...the United States entered into a treaty reestablishing relations. In the treaty, the Cherokee Nation renounced slavery and involuntary servitude, and promised to extend ‘all rights of native Cherokees’ to the former Cherokee slaves.”
The Cherokee Nation says to let the courts act before Congress acts. But the courts have spoken, they have acted on numerous occasions, and they have consistently ruled in favor of the Freedmen.
It is now time, indeed it is past time, for Congress to act. I find it particularly egregious that Congress has not weighed in on behalf of the Freedmen when we have a Bureau of Indian Affairs that has made it clear, with the concurrence of the current administration, and is evidenced in a recent letter I received from the Acting Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that, and I quote from the letter, “it does not intend to take any action with respect to the reinstatement of the Freedmen.”
Over the past year and a half, I have advocated over and over again that Congress hold hearings on the Freedmen, that it takes action. But my entreaties have fallen largely on deaf ears.
So I ask again, with all due respect: Chairman Rahall, will the Committee on Resources hold hearings on the Freedmen? Chairman Waxman, with all due respect, we need the Committee on Oversight and Investigations to look into the issue of the Freedmen. And with the utmost respect I say to my dear friend and colleague, Chairman Conyers, who is a longstanding champion of the Freedmen, we need the Judiciary Committee to hold hearings.
The Freedmen issue is a treaty rights issue, but it is also a civil rights issue. It is an issue crying out for Congressional oversight and action.
There are few issues in this day and age that are about good and evil, right and wrong. I am tired of hearing people say that the Freedmen issue is such a difficult and complex issue. Their hand-wringing belies their commitment to inaction and injustice.
There is nothing difficult about analyzing the morality of discrimination. It is immoral. The question is, what side of history do you want to be on? The right side or the wrong side?