Cherokee Nation is blessed today with more than 330,000 citizens. Subject to removal from their original territory in the southeastern United States, after the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee Nation reunited into a single political body and flourished in what would later become Oklahoma. Through the good days and through trials, the Cherokee Nation maintained vibrant community, and preserved the cultural heritage of our ancestors while building a progressive lifestyle for the future.
As part of the historical relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the United States, the federal government holds money, land and other resources in trust for the Cherokee Nation that are required to be used for the Nation’s benefit. The federal government has an obligation to prudently manage these “trust funds” and it is required to provide an accounting to the Cherokee Nation explaining how the United States oversees the trust. No such accounting has ever been provided to the Nation. The Cherokee Nation asked for an accounting of its trust resources to ensure the federal government managed the Nation’s trust assets in a fair and just manner. With that request unfulfilled, the Nation sued. Resolution of the Cherokee Nation’s claims is intended to strengthen the working relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the U.S. government by eliminating the uncertainty caused by a failure to account.
A History of the Cherokee Nation, Its Trust Resources and U.S. Trust Duties
The Cherokee people existed as a distinct national community for time in memoriam. The Cherokee Nation is a sovereign governmental entity with laws governing its land and people. Since before recorded history, the Cherokee Nation governed a land rich with natural resources. When the United States began to occupy the Cherokee land, the U.S. government and the Cherokee Nation entered into numerous treaties and agreements. Per these agreements, the government managed the tribe’s vast lands and resources on behalf of the Cherokee Nation. At other times, the United States unilaterally took control of the Cherokee Nation’s trust funds pursuant to a statute or executive action, without consent of the tribe.
Beginning in 1785, the United States entered into treaties with the Cherokee Nation. Many of these treaties provided for the sale of land, the proceeds of which were to go to the Cherokee Nation or be managed for the benefit of the Nation. These treaties often stated the United States was to supply the Cherokee Nation with goods and services in exchange for land. For example, the Treaty of New Echota, the final treaty leading to Cherokee removal, created a permanent fund for the Cherokee Nation to be invested in stock for the benefit of the Nation.
As early as 1846, the United States recognized that it had mismanaged funds for the Cherokee Nation. The Treaty of Washington established the United States was to account for Cherokee monies gained under the Treaty of New Echota that had been mishandled. The treaty also provided for additional money to be paid to the Nation.
Beginning in 1872, Congress started to unilaterally pass laws to manage trust funds and resources for the Cherokee Nation. In 1872, Congress passed an Act selling the “Cherokee Strip,” a 2-mile-wide tract of land between Kansas and Oklahoma, with the provision that the proceeds of the sale were to be invested for the Nation. In 1877, Congress again passed acts that established interest-bearing funds for the Nation and provided for social welfare programs.
The United States also quickly took over the natural resources on Cherokee Nation land. In 1882, the government leased the salt deposits on Cherokee land. In addition, the U.S. took control over coal, oil, asphalt and mineral deposits as well as timber resources. For example, the Timber and Stone Act of 1900 made it illegal to cut timber or mine stone on Cherokee land without permission from the U.S. government. Additionally, the government took possession and was supposed to appraise all buildings belonging to the Cherokee.
In the early 1900s, the Interior Department illegally took over control of the Cherokee Nation’s government, with the US President at times appointing a “Chief for a Day” who would sign paperwork necessary to meet federal objectives in “breaking up” the Cherokee Nation. Yet, shortly after this dark period, Congress passed laws that required the United States to account for the Nation’s trust assets and to create a bookkeeping system to keep track of the Nation’s trust funds. In 1946, Congress passed the Claims Commission Act, which provided procedures for tribes to bring certain claims, including trust claims, against the United States government. But the federal government failed to complete its book keeping, and if failed during the time it controlled the Cherokee government to file suit before the Indian Claims Commission that would have required the accounting so long – and illegally – withheld.
In the 1970s the famous case of Harjo v. Kleppe held that the United States control of the Five Tribes was illegal, that the Tribes were never disbanded, and led to a reaffirmation of the Cherokee Nation’s government. In the intervening 40 years the Cherokee Nation has been picking up the pieces of the United States’ illegal and devastating control of its government. As a part of that restoration, Oklahoma congressional leaders pushed for an obtained passage by Congress of the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act of 1994 with restated that the United States had a pre-existing duty to account for the Cherokee Nation (and other tribes’) Trust Funds.
The United States holds and manages vast resources for the Nation within a Cherokee Trust Fund. These resources include surface leases for agriculture, oil and gas mining leases, coal leases, sand and gravel leases, income from property owned by the Nation, land, monetary funds, and other assets. Despite Harjo v. Kleppe and despite the 1994 Act, and since then despite a host of federal cases requiring the United States to account, the United States has not accounted for the Cherokee Trust Fund.
The Cherokee Nation therefore filed a trust accounting claim against the United States government. The Nation is requesting that the United States provide a full and complete accounting of the Nation’s Trust Funds and to ensure an accounting system is put in place for the future that will ensure the United States does not continue to fail in its duty to account to the Nation.