04/09/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Challenger to Rep. Diane Watson supports Cherokee Nation

Challenger to Rep. Diane Watson supports Cherokee Nation

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2010 Native Sun News

February 8, 2010

How many of you know that a U. S. Congresswoman from California has twice tried to terminate the federal status of the Cherokee Nation? It may be the first and only time such an event has occurred. Representative Diane Watson (D-CA) is trying to do just that.

In March 2006, the Cherokee Nation's Supreme Court ruled that the descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen (Black descendants of slaves) were unjustly kept for over 20 years from enrolling as citizens. They were allowed to register and to become enrolled citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

Principal Chief Chad "Corntassel" Smith called for an emergency election to amend the constitution. A petition for a vote to remove the Freedmen descendants was circulated and Chief Smith held an emergency election. As a result of the amendment's near unanimous approval the Freedmen descendants were removed from the Cherokee Nation tribal rolls.

"It's an Indian thing, we do not want non-Indians in the tribe, our Indian blood is what binds us together," said Jodie Fishinghawk, who helped lead the drive to expel the Freedmen.

She notes that nearly all Indian nations require their citizens to be able to document direct ancestors in the tribe. Standards vary from nation to nation, and most are more stringent than the Cherokee. Fishinghawk says a tribe's right to set conditions of citizenship is fundamental to its sovereignty.

"It's a democratic process, people are allowed to vote. That's what America is based on, that's what we use here in the Cherokee Nation."

In the door stepped Congresswoman Watson. An African American herself, Watson threatened the Cherokee Nation with termination and if not that, the withholding of funds vital to the Nation's very survival. She intimated that the increasing wealth of the Cherokee through their profitable gaming casinos has caused some tribal members to seek the removal of others in order to increase their own benefits. Yet, by applying this line of thinking to the Cherokee Nation, Rep. Watson is accused of overlooking the fact that so many Indian tribes in her home state, California, have become notorious in Indian Country for expelling former tribal members from their rolls. Indian country had never witnessed this mass removal of tribal members until the California tribes initiated so many actions within their ranks. The response to Rep. Watson in Oklahoma is, "Clean up your own backyard before trashing ours."

The rise of another African American politician in California's 33rd District to challenge Rep. Watson for her Congressional seat has delighted most Cherokee and many have thrown their full support behind him because he firmly supports the Cherokee Nation's legal right to remove the Freedmen from the tribal rolls.

His name is Felton Newell and he is running against Rep. Watson in November. Who is Newell. In 2006, Newell left his corporate law job to serve the people of his community as a prosecutor in the Los Angeles City Attorney's office. Felton has prosecuted 28 criminal misdemeanor cases to a jury verdict, including cases involving domestic violence, vandalism and criminal assault.

Newell also has forced lax property owners in the 33rd district to retake control of their properties from gang members and drug dealers who were using the buildings as bases for criminal activity. He currently serves as a neighborhood prosecutor in downtown Los Angeles. In this position, Felton meets with community, business and political leaders to identify the quality of life crimes affecting the citizens who work and live downtown, and develops strategies to reduce those crimes.

Chief Smith has found himself in the middle of the turmoil. He is a firm believer that every Indian nation has the right to identify and claim its own membership. He is angry at the threats Rep. Watson brought against the Cherokee Nation and he sees these threats as a precedent that could threaten all of Indian Country.

"We did not hold the election about the Freedmen to dispute the issue of race. We have thousands of Black men and women living as enrolled members of the Cherokee Nation, but they have proof of Indian blood and that's all this whole thing is about. We expect that our tribal members have Cherokee blood."

When John Lewis (D-GA), an African American, spent two days visiting the people of the Cherokee Nation he came away with his eyes wide open, according to Smith. "He saw things for himself and he heard and saw both sides of the issue that few people take the time to understand," Smith said.
At any rate, Newell believes he has a good shot at unseating the longtime Congresswoman Watson in this year's elections. He would like any Native American interested in this issue and in his ideas to go to: and see for themselves what he is all about.

The decision in the Freedmen v. Cherokee Nation will be announced shortly so stay tuned.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at