August 13, 2007

Treaties trump sovereignty

Tribe can change constitution, not freedmen treaty, BIA saysThe head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs endorsed the Cherokee Nation's right to amend its constitution without federal approval, but he made it clear Friday that the action does nothing to alter the tribal membership of freedmen descendants.

"By approving this constitutional amendment, it doesn't change the freedmen's status," Carl Artman said. "The 1866 treaty between the United States and the Cherokee Nation affirms their rights.

"Until the treaty of 1866 is abrogated, the freedmen will remain members of the tribe."

Making his comments during an interview, Artman said his agency would consider taking the Cherokee Nation to court to enforce that treaty if the tribe once again moved to expel certain descendants of former slaves from its membership rolls.

"I am not sure that court action is the way to go," he said. "We would look at all of our options."

Artman's Aug. 9 letter to the tribe, which announced his approval of the constitutional change taking the federal government out of its amendment process and his comments about that decision, stressed that the tribe still must follow the law.

"In approving the amendment, it affirmed tribal sovereignty," Artman said, adding that tribal sovereignty, just like the sovereignty of the federal government or a state government, can be limited by a constitution.

"It can also be limited by treaties, and in this case, sovereignty is limited, guided by the 1866 treaty," he said.

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