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Cherokees Go to Court Over Freedmen Status

TULSA, Okla.

The Cherokee Nation wants a federal judge to decide whether descendants of the tribe’s former Black slaves, known as freedmen, have a federal right to citizenship in the tribe.

In the five-page complaint filed last Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Tulsa, the nation argues that, because of the U.S. government’s modification of an 1866 treaty it had with the tribe, descendants of freedmen are not entitled to federal citizenship rights. It names several freedmen descendants and the U.S. Department of the Interior, among others, as defendants.

“We feel like it will help settle the issue of whether or not we broke the treaty,” said Mike Miller, spokesman for the Tahlequah-based tribe. “We feel confident we have not, and that’s why we’re willing to take that step.”

For decades, descendants of freed Cherokee slaves fought to reclaim their citizenship, even though they were adopted into the tribe in 1866 under a treaty with the U.S. government. A tribal court order gives them citizenship for now while their case moves through the tribal court system.

Ralph Keen Jr., an attorney representing about 380 freedmen descendants, said the nation’s federal complaint was not “supported by federal law or history.”

“To me, this is somewhat a repetition of the issues raised in the tribal court,” he said.

A ruling in 2006 by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court held that the Cherokee constitution ensured freedmen descendants of the right to tribal citizenship.

That led to a petition drive for a ballot measure to determine who is a citizen of the nation, which claims more than 280,000 members.

In 2007, nearly 77 percent of Cherokee voters decided in a special election to amend the nation’s constitution to remove about 2,800 freedmen descendants and other non-Indians from tribal rolls. Critics of the vote said then it was hardly a mandate because only a fraction of the nation’s tribal citizens – about 9,000 – cast ballots.

“After years of controversy, it is important to let the federal courts settle this issue,” Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, said in a statement Tuesday. “This filing today is the Cherokee Nation keeping its word, and letting the federal courts have a clear path to reaching a decision on the merits without compromising the nation’s sovereign immunity, and without the risk of setting procedural precedents that may affect other tribes.”

In 2007 the U.S. House voted to take away some of the Cherokees’ federal funding if they did not restore citizenship rights to freedmen, but the bill was later amended. The nation can continue to receive housing benefits as long as the tribal court order giving freedmen citizenship remains in place.

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