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The Tanasi Memorial is located about 12 miles south of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore, Tenn. Tanasi, the state of Tennessee's namesake, is one of two principal Cherokee town sites that are among the subjects of a bill in Congress that seeks to return 76 acres of ancestral land in Monroe County to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. / Staff photo by Ben Benton

A U.S. House bill aimed at keeping a promise made decades ago to the Cherokee people now has passed out of that chamber and is headed to the U.S. Senate.

"For the second year in a row, the House agreed in a widespread bipartisan fashion to maintain a commitment to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians by placing specified lands and easements in Monroe Country, Tennessee, into a trust for the use and benefit of the tribe," U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said in a statement on the latest action on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act. Fleischmann represents Tennessee's Third Congressional District, consisting of Anderson, Hamilton, McMinn, Monroe, Morgan, Polk, Roane, Scott and Union counties, and parts of Bradley and Campbell.

The legislation, introduced by Fleischmann in September 2015, seeks to return 76 acres of Cherokee homeland that was mostly inundated with water when the 129-foot-high Tellico Dam became operational in 1979. Areas that were once historic tribal headquarters along the Little Tennessee River were flooded. The Cherokee and environmentalists opposed the dam at the time.

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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.

Cherokee Indians in North Carolina this month praised House passage of the bill.

"This bill reunites the Eastern Band of Cherokee with our homelands in East Tennessee. We look forward to a renewed and prosperous relationship with Tennessee," Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed said in a statement.

some text A map engraved on the Cherokee Memorial on the grounds of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore, Tenn., is copied from the work of British Lt. Henry Timberlake, who created detailed maps of the region. / Staff photo by Ben Benton

The bill — introduced in 2017 as H.R. 146 — passed 383-2 in a 2018 House vote and was opposed by Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, who has since left the Republican Party and become an independent, and Robert Pittenger, who previously represented North Carolina. But the bill languished and wasn't taken up by the Senate during the 2018 session.

It was reintroduced in the 116th Congress on Jan. 10, 2019, as H.R. 453 and passed in a voice vote on Dec. 16, congressional records show. There was no record of the tally or any opposition.

On Thursday, Fleischmann's spokeswoman Kasey Lovett said the congressman "is optimistic there will be a sponsor of the bill that will move it through the Senate."

In his comments in the legislation on Dec. 16, Fleischmann stressed to House members that the bill brings the U.S., Tennessee and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians together "to right a long-term wrong."

some text Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed / Contributed photo

"This was a promise that was made by the people of Tennessee and TVA to the Cherokee decades ago. This is not something new," Fleischmann said.

"The promise was made and the promise was not kept."

Fleischmann applauded "overwhelming bipartisan support" for the bill in the House and remarked that the bill has drawn help from Tennessee Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Lamar Alexander and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

HOUSE RESOLUTION 453: EASTERN BAND OF CHEROKEE HISTORIC LANDS REACQUISITION ACT

* Impacts 76 acres of specified lands along the Little Tennessee River and Tellico Reservoir in Monroe County

* Includes lands from the Tanasi Memorial, Chota Memorial, Sequoyah Museum and land to administer support for these cultural programs and properties

* Places these lands into trust for the benefit of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

Source: U.S. House of Representatives

The land in question contains sites that include the Cherokee towns of Tanasi and Chota, two principal towns and de facto capitals of the Overhill Cherokee living in East Tennessee, and the 1776 birthplace of Sequoyah, the man who invented the Cherokee's written language and established the first national bilingual newspaper. The bill, if signed into law by the president, would make the 76 acres reservation land and allow the tribe to build facilities for interpretive and educational programs and other types of operations there.

The act contains stipulations that gambling operations cannot be established on the land, and any shoreline work would be subject to TVA approval.

Forty-six acres of the land comprises the property that houses Vonore, Tennessee's recently renovated Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, opened in 1986 as a memorial to Sequoyah and Cherokee history.

The three federally recognized tribes of the Cherokee — the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma — all have ties to the Appalachian Mountains and the Little Tennessee River Valley.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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