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Cherokee Freedmen Win Citizenship

Allison Herrera
Marilyn Vann, President of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association and lead plaintiff in the case, listens at a Freedmen meeting.

A case that helps determine whether or not the descendants of Cherokee slaves have the full citizenship rights of native Cherokees was decided in United States Federal District Court Wednesday.

After nearly three years, Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan in his ruling said the paramount question to be considered is whether an 1866 treaty between the Cherokee Nation and the United States granted the Cherokee Freedmen, or the descendants of slaves, "all the rights of native Cherokees."

The Cherokee Nation argued in 2014 that the 1866 treaty never granted citizenship rights to the Freedmen or their descendants. Hogan, however, ruled that the rights of Cherokee Freedmen are tied to the rights of native Cherokees and "cannot be extinguished solely by amending that (Cherokee) Constitution."

In his ruling, Hogan also made clear that the Cherokee Nation's right to determine its membership is no less now than it was after the 1866 treaty, but membership can be limited by a treaty.

"The Cherokee Nation can continue to define itself as it sees fit but must do so equally and evenhandedly with respect to native Cherokees and the descendants of Cherokee freedmen. By interposition of Article 9 of the 1866 Treaty, neither has rights either superior or, importantly, inferior to the other. Their fates under the Cherokee Nation Constitution rise and fall equally and in tandem. In accordance with Article 9 of the 1866 Treaty, the Cherokee Freedmen have a present right to citizenship in the Cherokee Nation that is coextensive with the rights of native Cherokees."

Cherokee Nation voters amended the Constitution in 2007 to limit Cherokee citizenship to people who could prove they were Cherokee "by blood." This stripped the Freedmen descendants of their rights, spurring this most recent legal battle.

In 2014, in an effort to end more than a decade of legal battles, the Department of Interior filed a motion for summary judgment in the case. Their motion stated that the 1866 treaty did grant full citizenship rights, including voting rights, to the descendants of former slaves of the Cherokee Nation.

Lead Counsel for the Freedmen, John Velie of Norman said, "This is a wonderful victory for the Freedmen who regained their identities as equal citizens in their nation. It is a victory against racial oppression and division. It is a win for Native Americans as the federal courts have enforced both treaty rights of citizenship while maintaining tribes' and elected officials' rights to determine citizenship and self-determination pursuant to law."

Cherokee Freedmen Lead Plaintiff and President of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association Marilyn Vann said, "I am filled with joy that my people, the Freedmen, will continue to be citizens, as our ancestors have, in the Cherokee Nation. I look forward to the healing within our proud and amazing people."

The Cherokee Nation has not yet commented on Wednesday's ruling.

Rachel Hubbard serves as KOSU's executive director.
Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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