Frank sides with CBC, holds fast on Cherokee funding

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has threatened to block housing legislation for Native Americans if the final bill does not include a funding ban against the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma .

Frank shares a concern first raised by the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), whose members have proposed several measures to punish the tribe for changing its constitution last year to exclude the Freedmen — a group of largely black Americans who are descendants of freed slaves once owned by tribe members — from its ranks.

ADVERTISEMENT
The tribe’s actions have led to an intense fight between the Cherokee Nation and the CBC. The tribe has hired a number of lobbyists to push back against punitive legislation as it also battles the issue in federal and tribal court. The powerful House Financial Services Committee chairman is yet another obstacle for the Cherokee.

“We would not pass the bill. We would not acquiesce to give funding to the Cherokees,” said Frank, whose committee has jurisdiction over the legislation. Frank said he would not bring a conference report to the floor for a final vote without the ban firmly in place.

The House version of the bill passed in September with an amendment by Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) that would bar housing funds for the Cherokee. Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), however, amended Watt’s provision so that it would not take effect until a tribal court battle between the Cherokees and the Freedmen is resolved.

That has been a primary argument of the tribe: Let the courts, not Congress, decide the issue. If the bill sponsored by Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) becomes law, Watt’s measure would cut $30 million of federal housing funds for close to 7,400 Cherokee, according to the tribe’s estimates.

“This legislation will punish some of Oklahoma’s neediest citizens based on a complete misunderstanding of the facts. Most Americans understand why it makes sense for an Indian tribe to believe that only Indians should be in a tribe,” said Mike Miller, a Cherokee spokesman, in a statement. 

The Senate has yet to include Watt’s ban in a corresponding bill, which has holds on it unrelated to the Cherokee funding ban at the moment, according to a spokesman for Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), the bill’s author.

“Once the bill gets moving again, Sen. Dorgan will look at the issue,” said Justin Kitsch, Dorgan’s spokesman, in an e-mail.

The CBC has warned Senate leadership that it would oppose and lobby against a bill that does not include the ban. In a letter last month to Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidTop Lobbyists 2017: Grass roots Boehner confronted Reid after criticism from Senate floor GOP in uncharted territory rolling back rules through resolutions MORE (D-Nev.), CBC lawmakers said the Cherokee funding ban must be included. Reid’s staff has been in discussions with the caucus since receiving the letter.

“We are very aware of their concern and we understand there are very deep sentiments on both sides of this issue,” said Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman, in an e-mail.

Watt was firm with his position that the ban must stay in the bill.

“You reach a point of where the Cherokees must understand what they are doing,” he said. “It seems the only way for them to understand is [if] there will be some consequences.”

Frank is not the only prominent Democrat to support the funding ban for the Cherokee. House leadership has also backed the ban, according to a leadership aide.

Asked why he would not bring up the bill, Frank said the Cherokee betrayed the Treaty of 1866, which gave tribal citizenship rights to the Freedmen.

“Because it’s the law. It’s part of the treaty,” said Frank. “Tribes too often have been victims of broken treaties.”

But the Cherokee have contended that is inaccurate.

“We would like an opportunity to meet with Chairman Frank so he can become better informed about the 1866 treaty, why we haven’t violated it, and why federal and tribal judges are in a better position than Congress to make a decision after hearing all the facts,” said Miller, the tribe’s spokesman.

Lobbyists for the tribe have begun distributing a five-page white paper to Capitol Hill offices saying Congress, not the tribe, removed citizenship rights from the Freedmen.

Specifically, the tribe points to legislation passed by Congress in the early 1900s, as well as court rulings that revoked Cherokee citizenship rights from Freedmen descendants.

Not all Freedmen have been expelled from the tribe. In amending its constitution in March of last year, the Cherokee approved a change that would exclude members that could not trace their Indian ancestry to the tribe’s 1906 census.

Consequently, there are still some black members left in the tribe, though about 2,800 Freedmen are no longer part of the 270,000 member-strong Cherokee. The Freedmen who are no longer part of the tribe also have temporary citizenship rights until the issue is resolved in court.

Nevertheless, Watt said the Cherokee must reverse their position on the Freedmen.

“The ball is in their court. It’s their move,” said the North Carolina Democrat. “They need to have a reality check. This is the best way to deliver that message.”