FROM THE ARCHIVE

Seminole Freedmen lawsuit dismissed

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TUESDAY, APRIL 30, 2002

Descendants of African slaves who were made members of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma were dealt a major setback last week.

U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange agreed that the Seminole Freedmen, as the group is historically known, advanced some convincing arguments in their claim to $56 million on federal settlement money. Yet she ruled the lawsuit couldn't proceed without the involvement of the tribe.

The dismissal was a technical one, since the lawsuit was brought against the Department of Interior. The tribe can't be joined without waiving its sovereign immunity.

But Miles-LaGrange also refused to order the government to issue Certificates of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIBs) to the Freedmen. The move forever prohibits African-American members from receiving federal services without documented Indian heritage.

The ruling comes after a September 1999 federal appeals court decision which kept the lawsuit alive. Sylvia Davis and other Seminole Freedmen charged that they were wrongfully excluded from the judgment fund, which was awarded to compensate the tribe after being removed from Florida.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, without ruling on the merits, said the plaintiffs were entitled to a more fair review of the case. Miles-Lagrange, who is African-American, heard additional arguments and essentially reached the same conclusions she made in the spring of 1998.

In the meantime, the dispute has reached national attention, with 60 Minutes II working on a segment for its news program. An opinion piece published in The New York Times last week argued that the Freedmen were the victims of racial discrimination and historic revisionism.

But the group faced some legal obstacles. A treaty signed after the Civil War was the first document to recognize the African descendants officially.

Since the judgment fund was based on the historic Seminole Nation as it existed in 1823, the Freedmen were essentially locked out. The battle became further muddied when a majority of Seminole voters in the spring of 2000 voted to change their membership requirements in a way to exclude those without documented Seminole Indian heritage.

Although those specific changes were rejected by then-Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover and later invalidated by a federal court, the tribe was held effectively hostage by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which refused to recognize the new Seminole leadership and allow federal funds to be disbursed. After ongoing negotiations, during which some money came through, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb acknowledged the tribal council this month.

"We’ve always known we were the only legitimate representative body of this Nation," said Wayne Shaw, acting council chairman, in a statement last week.

Ken Chambers serves as Principal Chief.

Mark Goldey, an attorney representing Davis and the Bruner and Dosar-Barkus Freedman Bands, told The Tulsa World in a report published Sunday that the BIA helped the tribe exclude the African members. He declined to speculate whether an appeal is planned, the paper reported.

Related Decisions:
Davis v. U.S. No. 98-6161 (10th Circuit. September 21, 1999)

Relevant Links:
Seminole Nation of Oklahoma - http://www.cowboy.net/native/seminole
Estelusti Foundation - http://www.estelusti.com

Related Stories:
Opinion: Seminole Nation always black (4/22)
A fight over funds, race (4/4)
Seminole Head Start funds OKed (2/6)
Seminole changes sought again (1/16)
Ousted Seminole leader sues tribe, BIA (12/14)
Black Seminole issue still divisive (10/29)
Suspended Seminole Chief to sue (6/27)
Seminole Chief Haney suspended (6/26)
Race part of Seminole dispute (1/29)
Seminole voters approve changes (7/7)
Seminole vote may affect Freedmen (7/7)