By Andy Sher
NASHVILLE -- A legislative panel recommended Tuesday that the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs be abolished following commission efforts to establish state standards to recognize tribes in Tennessee.
Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, said the "frustration is evident in the room" after listening to three hours of testimony by commissioners, officials with the federally recognized Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation and members of two state groups that contend their organizations are Cherokee tribes.
Sen. Bunch likened the tribe-recognition issue to immigration. He said it was a federal matter, and the state could end up in court.
"I do believe the best thing we can do is stay out," he said.
Acting on Sen. Bunch's motion, the joint subcommittee of the Senate and House Government Operations committees, voted 4-1 to let the agency go out of existence instead of renewing it for six more years.
If the General Assembly does not renew the commission next year, the agency would go into a one-year "wind down" phase before being abolished.
"It's quite a disappointment," said Indian Affairs Commission Chairwoman Evangeline W. Lynch.
She said the recognition issue has consumed much of the commission's time over the past four years.
Commissioners may seek to convince the full joint House and Senate Government Operations committees not to end the existence of the commission. The panel survived efforts some years ago by then-Gov. Don Sundquist to kill it on another matter.
Indian Affairs Commissioner Tom Kunesh, of Chattanooga, said the tribal-recognition issue was confusing to lawmakers. He said the Cherokee Nation is afraid the commission would recognize other groups.
"I'd say the subcommittee listened to the two poles and did not look at the middle path that the commission itself was charting," Mr. Kunesh said.
Troy Wayne Poteete of the Cherokee Nation, who said he is an aide to Chief Chad Smith, urged lawmakers to block commission efforts to set state rules to recognize tribes. Federal standards are stricter, said Mr. Poteete, who called the state commission a detriment.
He said there is a growing national problem with "psuedo-tribes." There are no Cherokee tribes in Tennessee, he said.
"Andrew Jackson did too good a job," Mr. Poteete said, referring to the U.S. president from Tennessee who presided over the forced removal of most Cherokees on the Trail of Tears in the 1830s.
Joe Sitting Owl White, who said he represented the Cherokee of Lawrence County, Tenn., south of Nashville, criticized the Tennessee Indian Affairs Commission for failing to act on tribal-recognition issues. Mr. White disputed Cherokee Nation assertions that there are no Cherokee tribes in Tennessee.
Senate Government Operations Committee Chairwoman Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, said of the Cherokee of Lawrence County, "That's not a tribe; that's a group that wants to be."
Alma Little Crow Messina, who said she is a member of the Cherokee Wolf Clan in Yuma, Tenn., contended that Cherokees forcibly removed to Oklahoma were "yellowbellies who ran off to Oklahoma."
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