Cherokee sue over ruling on new tribes

NASHVILLE -- Representatives of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit Wednesday, charging the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs violated the state's Open Meetings Act on June 19 when members voted to recognize a half dozen groups as Native American tribes.

The lawsuit, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, asks the judge to enter a judgment declaring the commission's action "void and without effect."

Mark Greene, a Tennessee resident who lobbies for the federally recognized Cherokee Nation, is listed as the plaintiff in the complaint. It was filed by attorney Bob Tuke, a former Tennessee Democratic Party chairman and 2008 U.S. Senate candidate.

The Cherokee Nation and Tennesseans who are members of other federally recognized tribes have for some 20 years resisted efforts by Tennessee-based groups to obtain state recognition. The state groups say they are "remnant" tribes of American Indians who successfully eluded 19th century expulsions of Cherokees and others from the Southeastern U.S.

The lawsuit contends the remnant groups, which are not federally recognized, base their claims on "unreliable information" and says if the state "mistakenly" recognizes them, it will effectively let them "misappropriate legitimate tribes' cultural identity."

Bogus tribes could peddle "fake" Indian crafts and compete against federally recognized tribes for federal grants, scholarships and minority contracts, the suit says.

The suit charges the Commission of Indian Affairs, headed by Tammera Hicks, of Chattanooga, specifically failed to give "adequate" notice of its intention to adopt new rules regarding recognition and move to recognize the Tennessee-based groups.

The suit also alleges commissioners secretly discussed and deliberated on the action before their June 19 meeting, thus constituting legal grounds to void the formal grants of recognition under the state's "Sunshine Law."

"This process was as bogus as the six 'tribes' that were approved," Mr. Greene said in an interview.

Efforts to reach Ms. Hicks were unsuccessful. Ms. Hicks previously has said the legislation authorizing the commission years ago granted members the power to recognize tribes within the state.

Indian Affairs Commissioner Alice Gwin Henry, of Memphis, a member of the Tanasi Council, a group which the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs recognized, rejected the complaint's assertions about violating Open Meetings Act provisions.

"I think they've been thumping their chest and boasting," she said.

RECOGNIZED TRIBESGroups granted trial recognition by the Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs on June 19 include the Chikamaka Band, which has members in Marion, Grundy, Sequatchie, Franklin, Warren and Coffee counties. Also approved were the Cherokee Wolf Clan, the United Eastern Lenape Nation, the Tanasi Council, Central Band of Cherokee and Remnant Yuchi Nation.

The complaint against the commission was filed Wednesday, the last day of the Indian Affairs Commission's legal existence. The General Assembly earlier this month refused to extend its life.

Meanwhile, efforts by state-based "remnant" groups to persuade lawmakers to recognize them failed this year as well. And in May, lawmakers thought they had blocked the commission from moving ahead with the tribal recognition rules.

But the commission went ahead at its June 19 meeting and adopted recognition standards, the complaint says.

Tennessee's Open Meetings Act "declares it to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret." It allows many public entities' formal actions to be nullified by courts if officials do not provide adequate notice or make their decisions in secret.

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