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Cherokee Nation accepts Freedmen citizenship ruling

The Cherokee Nation will abide by a court ruling that reaffirmed the citizenship rights of the Freedmen, the tribe's top legal official said on Wednesday.

In court, the tribe argued that the Freedmen, the descendants of African-American slaves who were made members of the tribe after the Civil War, weren't entitled to citizenship unless they could demonstrate Indian blood.

But the Judicial Appeals Tribunal, the Cherokee Nation's highest court, rejected that view. In a 2-1 decision issued Tuesday, the court said the tribe's constitution that was adopted in 1975 didn't include an Indian blood requirement.

"There is no ambiguity to resolve," Justice Stacy L. Leeds wrote. "The words 'by blood' or 'Cherokee by blood' do not appear."

Therefore, any Freedmen descendant who can show that an ancestor appeared on the late-1800s Dawes Commission roll is entitled to citizenship, the court said. Diane Hammons, the tribe's general counsel, said the tribe will begin accepting such enrollments.

"We are a strong tripartite government that respects the rule of law," Hammons said. "Our court has announced its decision, and we accept that as the law of the land."

The decision is the first major victory for the Freedmen, whose numbers are made up of African-American citizens of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Creek nations. The Freedmen have suffered a series of setbacks in recent years, with the federal government and the federal courts refusing to get involved out of deference to tribal sovereignty.

"It is a great day for the Cherokee Nation to take the lead regarding the rights of the Freedmen descendants," said Marilyn Vann, a Cherokee who traces her ancestry to the Dawes Rolls and serves as the president of the Descendants Of Freedmen Of The Five Civilized Tribes.

It is unclear how many Cherokee Freedmen are eligible for enrollment in the tribe. In the late 1800s, approximately 3,500 Cherokee Freedmen were placed on the Dawes Roll. Vann's organization estimates that 45,000 descendants are alive today. The Cherokee Nation currently has more than 200,000 members.

Vann is a plaintiff in a separate case in federal court that challenges the Bureau of Indian Affairs for allowing Cherokee Freedmen to be excluded from a 2003 constitutional election. Freedmen who could not demonstrate Indian blood weren't allowed to vote, according to the lawsuit.

The constitution didn't make any changes to the status of the Freedmen -- it was the tribal council that restricted their rights through legislation, the court noted in its decision this week. "The council is empowered to enact enrollment procedures, but those laws must be consistent with the 1975 constitution," the JAT wrote. "The current legislation is contrary to the plain language of the 1975 constitution.

The 2003 constitution remains in legal limbo, however, because it includes a provision that strips the BIA of its review and approval authority. The agency has withheld approval of the document for more than two years out of concern that Freedmen may have been disenfranchised.

The BIA's stance has drawn considerable opposition from Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith, who had registered strong objections and planned to bring a delegation of tribal dignitaries, including former chief Wilma Mankiller, to Washington to lobby the Bush administration back in the summer of 2003.

The meeting never happened but Smith as recently as last month sought approval to file a lawsuit against the BIA for the delay. The request was rejected by the tribal council.

Separately, the tribe is seeking to intervene in Vann's lawsuit, citing the need to protect its sovereignty. Vann's attorneys in Washington and in Oklahoma filed a brief last month opposing the request.

Despite the Cherokee Nation's official response to the JAT decision, an attorney who represented the tribe said he disagreed with it. In a story published in the Oklahoman today, Todd Hembree said it was "undoubtedly one of the biggest decisions ever handed down" by the court because it will affect the tribe's budget and the services it provides.

"We only have a finite amount of money, and you can only divide the pie so many time," Hembree was quoted in the story as saying.

Tune in to WBAI radio at 11am Eastern Standard Time for a discussion on the Cherokee Freedmen victory.

Judicial Appeals Tribunal Decision:
Allen v. Cherokee Nation (March 7, 2006)

Related Story:
Freedmen to become Cherokee citizens (The Oklahoman 3/9)

Relevant Links:
Freedmen Of The Five Civilized Tribes -
Freedmen Conference -
Cherokee Nation -