Reclaiming the past: Cherokee land acquisition bill moves forward

A recent hearing on a congressional bill that would transfer 76 acres in Tennessee to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has spurred hope that a long-fought battle to bring that acreage into permanent trust could soon come to an end.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Historic Lands Reacquisition Act was introduced to the House of Representatives on Jan. 3, 2017, and promptly referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, which referred it to the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Native American Affairs. The subcommittee held hearings on the matter in October and referred the bill back to the Committee on Natural Resources, which held another round of hearings Jan. 17 that resulted in amendments to the legislation, and a unanimous vote to send the bill to the House floor for a vote.

The 76 acres in question are located in Monroe County, Tennessee, and are home to the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, the Chota Memorial, the Tanasi Memorial and land to provide support for these properties and cultural programs. The property borders Tellico Lake, with much of it currently owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The tribe fought the TVA over creation of the lake, which inundated the sites of several ancient Cherokee towns — including Tanasi, for which Tennessee was named — as well as the gravesites of thousands of years of Cherokee ancestors.

According to the bill, the TVA would maintain its right to carry out river control and development on the trust lands, including temporary, intermittent flooding of some lands. The bill outlines which structures can be built — with the TVA’s consent — on certain lands subject to flooding and states that the TVA must be compensated for any lost hydropower capacity due to future construction on these lands. Gaming would not be allowed on the property.

With significant progress now made on the House side, Principal Chief Richard Sneed is turning his attention to getting a bill in on the Senate side. In November 2017, he traveled to Tennessee to discuss the issue with leaders from Monroe County and the town of Vonore, and representatives from both entities have written letters to Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander to request his support on a Senate bill.

“This is a long process, and many people have helped along the way,” Sneed said in a statement released on Facebook. “Upon completion, the historic Cherokee overhill towns of Chota and Tanasi will once again belong to our people.”

This isn’t the first time that Cherokee has sought congressional approval to bring the Tennessee lands into tribal trust. A similar bill was introduced in September 2015, and — like the current bill — it was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, which sent it to the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Native American Affairs. The subcommittee held hearings on Feb. 24, 2016, which then-Principal Chief Patrick Lambert attended to testify.

“With the return of some of this land to our ownership, we can reclaim some of the land that holds a great amount of spirituality and historical significant to our Tribe,” Lambert said in a statement released at the time.

However, the bill saw no further action after the hearing, despite the favorable feedback and promises from representatives to push for a speedy House vote that Lambert reported. Since then, the country has gone through a tumultuous election cycle, and the roster of decision-makers is significantly different than it was in 2016.

Congress previously sought to recognize the area with a 2005 House bill that would have established the Cherokee Overhill Territory National Heritage Area, but that bill languished before reaching the floor for a vote.

The 2015 bill listed four cosponsors and the 2017 bill lists six, with Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, present on both lists. For both bills, all the cosponsors are Republican.

 

Track the bill

The bill’s full text, as well as updates on its progress through the U.S. House of Representatives, is available at www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/146.

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