, Muskogee, OK

September 5, 2011

Lawyers try to block Cherokee ruling

Decision would remove about 2,800 freedmen descendants

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— Freedmen descendants asked a federal judge to block their removal from the Cherokee Nation’s rolls and stop the principal chief election until their citizenship rights are restored.

The request for a preliminary injunction was filed in two federal lawsuits pending in the District of Columbia since 2003. The lawsuits were filed by Cherokee Freedmen attempting to preserve citizenship rights secured by an 1866 treaty.

The plaintiffs in those cases say they will suffer irreparable harm if a recent Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruling denying citizenship to freedmen who can prove no lineage by blood is allowed to stand.

The Aug. 22 opinion, if allowed to stand, would remove about 2,800 freedmen descendants from the tribal rolls and void scores of citizenship applications.

“The Cherokee Nation’s decision to oust its freedmen citizens on the eve of the election for its principal chief was a bad decision made for political gain at the expense of all of Indian Country,” said Jon Velie, the lead lawyer in the freedmen lawsuit.

Velie, in a statement released after the documents were filed late Friday night, said the tribal court’s opinion disregards more than 115 years of case law.

Up until as recently as last year, Velie said, federal courts have held the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and an 1866 treaty between the Cherokee Nation and the federal government “whittled away the tribe’s sovereignty with regard to slavery.”

Federal appellate judges in 2010 stated those provisions left the tribe powerless to discriminate against the Freedmen on their basis as former slaves. The tribe does not just lack a ‘special sovereign interest’ in discriminatory elections — it lacks any sovereign interest in such behavior.”

Velie said the freedmen descendants affected by the tribal court’s recent ruling will lose access to medical care and other benefits enjoyed by Cherokee citizens. Many others, Velie said, will lose the right to vote in the upcoming principal chief election.

Marilyn Vann, the lead plaintiff in one of the freedmen lawsuits filed in Washington, said the right to vote is a fundamental right in any democracy. Vann said the fight to preserve that right for Cherokee Freedmen will be relentless.

“Our (voting right) was stolen, our identities were stolen, and we will not sit back and allow someone to say we are not a Cherokees,” Vann said, noting her proud Cherokee heritage. “It is ludicrous to think our birth rights as Cherokee citizens can be voted out by a violation of a treaty between the U.S. and our nation.”

The freedmen’s requests are scheduled to be heard Sept. 20, four days before the Cherokee Nation’s principal chief election. The contest pits Chad Smith, former principal chief, and longtime Councilman Bill John Baker.

The results of the June 25 general election were invalidated in July by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, which could not determine a winner with mathematical certainty.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or