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Federal Recordkeeping The Subject Of A New Lawsuit By Cherokees

Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation secretary of the environment and natural resources, stands outside the Cherokee Nation Courthouse in Tahlequah.
Kirby Lee Davis
The Journal Record
Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation secretary of the environment and natural resources, stands outside the Cherokee Nation Courthouse in Tahlequah.

The Cherokee Nation has sued the federal government, and wants to know details about how it has managed its property throughout history.

Washington has historically overseen certain assets of recognized tribes, like property or money earned off leasing or selling that land.

In a lawsuit filed this week, the Cherokees said there’s a problem - records for many of those transactions are tucked away in storage closets around the country, The Journal Record's Dale Denwalt reports:

Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation secretary of the environment and natural resources, said the tribe has become more self-reliant over the past three decades. That’s in stark contrast to the historical management of tribal affairs when Washington, D.C., would appoint a chief. And while the government promised to keep track of land allotted to the tribe – and the money made off those lands, the Cherokee Nation now alleges there’s an information gap. One of those plots is the Cherokee Outlet, a massive swath of land that makes up much of northwestern Oklahoma today. “We know that back in the 1800s that it was leased out for cattle, and there were a lot of cattle run on that property,” Hill said. “The federal government received payments for that and that money belongs to the Cherokee Nation. The same would go for coal, timber, any other resources the tribe had.”

The complaint also includes the allegation that federal bureaucrats haven’t been issuing reports, which are required by law. The tribe did not cite any mismanagement, but Hill said it’s possible.

The lawsuit names the Department of the Interior as a defendant alongside other agencies and federal officials. Interior spokeswoman Nedra Darling declined to comment on the pending litigation, citing agency policy. The Cherokees’ lawsuit isn’t the first of its kind. Last year, Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes agreed to settle their own case against Interior for $186 million. Since 2010, the government has resolved breach-of-trust claims with 86 tribes worth a combined value of $2.8 billion.

Monday’s lawsuit isn’t much different than that suit. University of Oklahoma law professor Taiawagi Helton told Denwalt managing financial assets is easier than managing commodities like timber and coal, but the U.S. hasn’t done a good job. That’s led to a large number of cases.

Despite the long, formal relationship between Cherokees and the federal government since 1785, and the persistent acknowledgement from the U.S. that it would manage the tribe’s resources, Helton pointed out the consistent lack of reporting. “It’s really striking that having repeatedly accepted such obligations, the department seems unable to give a full accounting,” he said.

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Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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