Lawsuit seeks $36M for ‘de-recognition’ as TN Indian tribes

Leaders of three Tennessee groups briefly recognized as Indian tribes in 2010 have filed a federal lawsuit that seeks more than $36 million in damages, contending that the loss of recognition violated tribe members’ civil rights and blocked them from obtaining various benefits under federal law.

The three plaintiffs — the Remnant Yuchi Nation, the Tanasi Tribe and the United Lenape Tribe — were among six groups granted state recognition as Indian tribes by the Tennessee Commission on Indian Affairs in June of 2010 — just days before the commission ceased to exist.

Subsequently, representatives of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, which opposed recognition of the groups, filed a Davidson County Chancery Court lawsuit declaring the commission violated Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act, also known as the “sunshine law,” in the session in which the recognition was approved.

The lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court in Knoxville names as defendants former state Attorney General Bob Cooper and Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter, who signed off on an “agreed order” declaring the commission’s recognition of the six tribes “void and of no effect.”

That resolved the Chancery Court lawsuit brought by the Cherokees by eliminating the recognition that was granted and, since the commission no longer exists, any possibility of the commission holding another meeting on the matter. Bills in the state Legislature to grant recognition to some tribes have failed, including a 2013 measure that only called for a study of recognition.

The federal lawsuit, filed by Knoxville attorney William J. Taylor, contends the “de-recognition” amounted to “intentional discrimination” under “color of law” and as a result members of the tribes “lost their status as legal, identifiable minorities and the protections afforded therefrom.” The benefits lost range from ability to market products as being made by American Indians to eligibility for federal community block grants available to recognized Indians, the lawsuit says.

Listed as lead plaintiffs are Lee Vest of Kingsport, identified as a chief of the Remnant Yuchi Nation; Alice Gwin Henry of Memphis, leader of the Tanasi Tribe; and Bonnie Knuckles of Corbin, Ky., chief of the Lenape Tribe. They are acting on behalf of all tribe members.

For each of the three tribes, the lawsuit asks for $50,000 in compensatory damages, $10,000 in punitive damages and $12 million in “expectancy damages.”

Note: A copy of the lawsuit is available by clicking on this link: remnantyuchi