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House approves bill to grant Cherokee land in Tennessee

The Tanasi Memorial in Vonore, Tennessee, looks toward the site of the once-prominent Cherokee town, now underwater. Sequoyah Birthplace Museum photo The Tanasi Memorial in Vonore, Tennessee, looks toward the site of the once-prominent Cherokee town, now underwater. Sequoyah Birthplace Museum photo

For the second year running, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would return 76 culturally significant acres in Tennessee to Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians ownership.

H.R. 453 passed the House with a voice vote on Dec. 16 after multiple representatives made statements in support of it. 

“I want the members of this House to understand that this was a promise that was made by the people of Tennessee and the TVA to the Cherokee decades ago,” Rep. Chuck Fleichmann, R-Tennessee, said on the House floor Dec. 16 according to the Congressional Record. “This is not something new. The promise was made, and the promise was not kept.”

The land in question is located in Monroe County, Tennessee, and is home to the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, the Chota Memorial, the Tanasi Memorial and acreage supporting 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.

“The Cherokee can never recover these flooded lands, but there are other sites in the area that are in need of protection and preservation,” Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, said from the House floor. “H.R. 453 aids in this cause by transferring approximately 76 acres of historically significant lands from the TVA’s management to the United States, to be held in trust for the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Placing these lands into trust would give the Eastern Band greater control over their historic homelands, as well as the opportunity to memorialize the history and culture of the Cherokee people.”

The bill would allow the TVA to continue river control and development on trust lands and stipulates which structures could be built — with the TVA’s consent — on certain lands subject to flooding. The TVA would have to be compensated for any lost hydropower capacity due to future construction. No class II or III gaming would be allowed. 

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However, the Cherokee would once again own this culturally important piece of property. 

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

The bill passed the House with a voice vote, indicating overwhelming approval. When it was previously considered in 2018, the House approved it with a vote of 383-2. But in order to become law, it will need to get through the Senate, and last time around that proved a nonstarter. 

In 2018, the Senate referred the bill to the Committee on Indian Affairs, from which it never emerged. 

“This is a long-overdue bill,” Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, said from the floor. “I urge passage of it in the House, and I urge our friends in the Senate to take up the bill and pass it, as well.”

In his comments from the floor, Fleichmann thanked several legislators for their help in moving the bill forward, including Senators Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee; Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina; and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee. He also named Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, as a friend of the bill. 

“H.R. 453 was an important bill to return historic land sites back to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and fulfill a promise that was made decades ago,” said Meadows in a statement to The Smoky Mountain News. “Obviously it’s a critical issue for our district given our friendship with the Eastern Band in Western N.C. — so I was pleased to see the bill pass overwhelmingly, showing strong bipartisan support for honoring Cherokee history.”

Alexander’s office sent a statement welcoming the bill to the Senate side. 

“Senator Alexander looks forward to reviewing the House passed version of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Historic Lands Requisition Act as it moves through the Senate process,” said a spokeswoman for the senator. 

Burr’s office declined to comment, and Tillis’ office had not returned a request for comment as of press time. 

More information about the bill, including updates and its full text, is available at www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/453.

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