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Challenging false claims and legislative barriers

Michell Hicks. File photo Michell Hicks. File photo

As keepers of our traditions and sovereignty, we vehemently oppose any attempts to exploit or appropriate the rich cultural legacy of Cherokee people.

Our identity is deeply rooted in our history and connection to our land. Yet, despite our resilience, we face persistent challenges from individuals and groups who seek to exploit our culture and history for their own ends. 

We have sought for many years the return of historical Cherokee lands in Tennessee. With the support of the local community in Tennessee and Congressman Chuck Fleischmann from Tennessee, the federal legislation to return those historical lands is being blocked by Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) because he objects to our protection of Cherokee identity in relation to the Lumbees in North Carolina, a group that continues to claim Cherokee ancestry as a basis for federal recognition. In fact, the Lumbee legislation would enshrine into federal law that all persons on the Lumbee “source documents” would be considered full blood, 4/4, Indians, despite genealogical evidence that demonstrates that Lumbees have a difficult time showing Indian ancestry.

Sen. Tillis also is blocking the return of sacred land in South Dakota. The Wounded Knee Massacre Memorial and Sacred Site Act seeks to safeguard 40 acres of land on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota — a significant historical site commemorating the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre. This legislation aims to prohibit commercial development on the site and grant increased authority over it to the Oglala Lakota and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes, that have recently gained ownership of the land outlined in the bill. However, progress on this bill has halted due to opposition from Tillis. His insistence on linking its advancement to legislative recognition of the self-identified Lumbees as a tribe has caused the bill to be held up indefinitely.

The fate of this bill, which aims to protect and honor the site of the massacre and burial ground of our Indian relatives, now rests in the hands of the Lumbee as they seek federal recognition by attempting to bypass the Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA). Senator Tillis has outsourced his position on the Wounded Knee Massacre bill to the Lumbees.

Apart from the Wounded Knee Memorial Bill, the Senate is gearing up to examine the U.S. Truth and Healing Commission bill. This proposal seeks the establishment of a commission tasked with investigating and recognizing historical injustices and abuses experienced by Indigenous peoples, particularly those stemming from Indian boarding schools. We urge the Senate to support the passage of two crucial bills that profoundly impact Indigenous communities.

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We will continue to urge policymakers and regulatory bodies to enact stringent measures to maintain the federal recognition process and prevent the exploitation of Indian identity for personal and political gain. We must uphold the integrity of the federal recognition process and ensure that it remains a fair and just mechanism for acknowledging the sovereignty and rights of true Indigenous nations. Right now, state groups are beginning to dictate to federal politicians’ issues impacting federally recognized tribes including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, on important policy issues.

For generations, our ancestors have resisted oppression and fought for our rights and dignity. Today, we must carry on their legacy by speaking out against injustice and advocating for our communities’ well-being and sovereignty.

This isn’t just about defending ourselves; it’s about defending what’s right.

It is imperative to recognize that protection of Cherokee land and identity is not a trend — it is a sacred part of who we are as a people. Falsely claiming Cherokee and other Indian identity and culture not only dishonors our ancestors but also perpetuates harmful stereotypes and erases the lived experiences of genuine Native communities.

We will continue to stand vigilant in North Carolina and across all regions of the nation in our efforts to protect Indigenous culture and sovereignty for future generations.

(Michell Hicks is the principal chief of The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), a federally recognized Native American tribe located in Western North Carolina, United States. Hicks is a CPA who was recently re-elected and previously served three terms as Principal Chief and is a former Executive Director of Budget and Finance.)

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