The Cherokee Nation said it stands by its decision to revoke benefits and voting rights to some 2,800 descendants of slaves despite the federal government's threats to refuse recognition of an upcoming tribal election if benefits are not restored.
"The Cherokee Nation will not be governed by the BIA," Joe Crittenden, the tribe's acting principal chief, said in a statement responding to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs according to Reuters.
The federal government has stepped in on behalf of the Black Cherokee members after they received letters last week kicking them out of the tribe and stripping them of benefits, which include medical care, food stipends and assistance for low-income homeowners. The Black members were also prohibited from voting in an upcoming election for principal chief.
The Department of the Interior said that the expulsion is unconstitutional because it violates a 1866 treaty that guarantees tribal rights to all Cherokee descendants. In a firm letter sent to the tribe, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk told the leadership that unless the Black members are allowed to participate in the election and their membership restored, the government will refuse to acknowledge the results of the election as valid.
"I urge you to consider carefully the nation's next steps in proceeding with an election that does not comply with federal law," Hawk wrote, according to the Associated Press. "The department will not recognize any action taken by the nation that is inconsistent with these principles and does not accord its freedmen members full rights of citizenship."
However, more than the election validation is at stake as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is currently withholding a $33 million disbursement to the tribe as a result of the controversy.
In a 2007 special election, an overwhelming majority of Cherokees voted to remove the Blacks and other non-Indians from the tribal rolls, but the decision was not enforced until last month. Cherokee leaders said the vote was about the fundamental right of every government to determine its citizens, not about racial exclusion.
The Black Cherokees are the descendants of slaves owned by some Cherokees. An 1866 treaty between the tribe and the federal government gave the Blacks and other Cherokee descendants the same rights as members of the tribe.
(Photo: Joe Crittenden)