WASHINGTON (AP) _ A small group of powerful House Democrats has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether American Indian tribes are engaging in modern-day racial segregation against black "freedmen'' who are descendants of former tribal slaves.
The lawmakers, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers of Michigan and former civil rights leader John Lewis of Georgia, say five major tribes have been systematically removing freedmen from their membership or relegating them to second-class status without voting rights and other benefits.
In a letter sent last week, they asked Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether the tribes are violating treaties and breaking the law.
"Over 40 years after enactment of the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, there is a place in the United States that African Americans cannot vote or receive federal benefits as a matter of law,'' the letter says. "They are called `freedmen,' but they are anything but free.''
The lawmakers said the tribes' practices prevent the slave descendants from accessing millions of dollars in federal tribal funding for housing, health care and other services.
Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames said the agency would "review the letter to determine what action, if any, is appropriate.''
Mike Miller, a spokesman for the Cherokee Nation, one of the tribes named in the letter, called it "sad but not surprising.''
"As the Cherokee Nation has explained to more than 100 members of Congress through meetings, this issue has never been about race but only about who is a citizen of an Indian Nation,'' Miller said.
Cherokee and other tribes have long argued that they simply want to restrict their membership to blood descendants.
Concerns about the treatment of tribal slave descendants have been growing on Capitol Hill in recent years, particularly among the Congressional Black Caucus.
The issue heated up two years ago when the Cherokee Nation voted in a ballot initiative to amend the nation's constitution to remove about 2,800 freedmen and other non-Indians from tribal rolls.
Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., led an effort to withhold the tribe's federal funding. In 2007, the House voted to take away some of the Cherokees' money if they didn't restore citizenship rights to freedmen. But the bill was later amended, allowing the money to continue flowing as long as a temporary tribal court order giving freedmen citizenship remains in place.
The issue is now in federal court, and the U.S. government has said previously it would wait for the litigation to be resolved before taking action on the matter.
A similar dispute occurred in 2000 after the Seminole Nation voted to oust freedmen descendants from its tribe.
In their letter, the Democrats called for Holder to investigate not just Cherokee and Seminole practices but also Choctaw, Creek and Chickasaw tribes. They said many "illegal expulsions'' date back decades.
Other lawmakers signing the letter were Watson, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee, D-Calif., House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.