Seven years after it was first introduced and nearly 185 years after most of the Cherokee were forced west on the Trail of Tears, a bill seeking to return to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians more than 76 acres of sacred homeland in East Tennessee last week passed the U.S. House on a path its sponsor hopes takes it to President Joe Biden's desk.
"For the fourth Congress in a row, the House passed my bill to return 76.1 acres of sacred land to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians -- correcting a historic wrong when the federal government forcibly took their land," U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, said Tuesday in a statement on the bill's passage. "It is on these 76 sacred acres the Cherokee people have honored the birth and life of Sequoyah, one of the most influential and important Native Americans to have lived.
"It is essential that the land is returned to the Eastern Band of Cherokee, so the legacy of Sequoyah and the Eastern Band is taught for generations to come," Fleischmann said. "I hope my colleagues in the Senate recognize the crucial importance of returning and preserving this sacred land and act quickly to send the bill to President Biden for his signature."
Since its introduction in 2015, Fleischmann's bill has failed to secure a sponsor in the U.S. Senate, including from Fleischmann's fellow Tennessee Republicans in the Senate, Bill Hagerty and Marsha Blackburn.
Neither of the Tennessee lawmakers responded Tuesday to requests for comment on whether they would carry the bill.
Likewise, North Carolina Sens. Thom Tillis and Ted Budd didn't immediately respond when their offices were contacted Tuesday for comment.
Eastern Band leaders remain patient and supportive in the effort.
"Sequoyah was a statesman, diplomat and seminal leader who contributed so much to help the Cherokee people. We look forward to protecting and preserving this monument to his legacy for generations to come," Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed said in a statement included in Fleischmann's news release.
According to Fleischmann, the act will impact 76.1 acres of land along the Little Tennessee River and Tellico Reservoir in Monroe County, including lands from the Tanasi Memorial, Chota Memorial, Sequoyah Museum and lands to administer support for these cultural programs and properties. All the land involved will be placed into a trust for the benefit of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, he said. The act contains stipulations that gambling operations cannot be established on the land, and any shoreline work would be subject to Tennessee Valley Authority approval.
The land included in the bill consists of the Cherokee towns of Tanasi and Chota, two principal towns and de facto capitals of the Overhill Cherokee living in East Tennessee, and the birthplace of Sequoyah. The bill, if signed into law, would make the 76 acres reservation land and would allow the tribe to build facilities for interpretive and educational programs and other types of operations.
When the Tellico Dam impounded the Little Tennessee River, 276 local families were displaced, some of whom willingly sold their property, while others had to be forced out through condemnation, TVA officials said in 2015. There were no existing Cherokee communities at the time the dam was completed to create what would become a 15,560-acre reservoir.
The Tellico Reservoir stretches along 33 miles of the Little Tennessee toward the Appalachian Mountains. TVA acquired 37,900 acres for the reservoir that created 357 miles of shoreline and 15,560 acres of water surface.
Large areas of Cherokee ancestral lands along the Little Tennessee River were inundated behind the 129-foot-high Tellico Dam in 1979, covering sites of historic tribal communities of the Overhill Cherokee, places like Chilhowee, Tallassee, Citico, Chota, Tanasi, Toqua, Tomotley, Tuskegee and Mialoquo.
Back when Fleischmann introduced the bill in 2015, he said he had been approached by tribal leaders, who told him of the broken promises made about returning the land to the Cherokee.
"I researched this, they were absolutely right and even the promise breakers were very honest with me about the facts, so the facts were never in dispute," Fleischmann said in 2015. "There's no question that the 76 acres in Tanasi were promised to the Cherokee a long time ago, and that promise was unfulfilled."
When Fleischmann addressed the House last week, he called on fellow lawmakers to honor the promise to give back the 76 acres of TVA land to the tribal members who stayed in the hills and avoided the forced march west.
The act "returns important historic sites back to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the tribal nation comprised of descendants of those Cherokees who resisted removal in the Great Smoky Mountains and escaped the Trail of Tears," Fleischmann said Tuesday. "It is on these same lands where the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have for decades honored the birthplace of Sequoyah, whose likeness we all have the opportunity to pass as we make our way from the Rotunda to this House floor."
Fleischmann introduced the act Jan. 26 in the 118th Congress, and it passed the House unanimously by voice, according to Fleischmann's news release. Previously, the bill was introduced as H.R. 2088 in the 117th Congress and passed the House by a 407-16 vote, and the bill was introduced in the 116th Congress as H.R. 453 and passed unanimously by voice vote. In the 115th Congress, the bill was introduced as H.R. 146 and passed by a 383-2 vote.