OKLAHOMA CITY — A Cherokee Nation court on Friday overturned an amendment to the tribal constitution that denied citizenship to non-Native American descendants of tribal members’ former black slaves.
Tribal District Court Judge John Cripps ruled that a 145-year-old treaty between the tribe and the U.S. government provided that “freedmen” and their descendants were to be citizens of the Cherokee Nation, so the amendment passed in March 2007 was “void as a matter of law.”
Native American tribes are allowed to determine membership based on blood or lineage, “unless it is restrained from such determination by limitation of treaty or statute,” Cripps wrote in the four-page ruling. “Such is the case in this instance.”
Diane Hammons, the tribe’s attorney general, said the tribe respectfully disagreed with the decision. The tribe is based in Tahlequah, in northeastern Oklahoma.
“We believe that the Cherokee people can change our Constitution and that the Cherokee citizenry clearly and lawfully enunciated their intentions to do so in the 2007 amendment,” Hammons said. “We are considering all options, including our right to appeal to the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court.”
Tribal spokesman Mike Miller said Principal Chief Chad Smith wouldn’t have any comment.
Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen Association, said the group was happy with Cripps’ decision. The organization represents descendants of former slaves of the Cherokee Nation and other tribes.
“We feel saddened that so many resources and so much effort has been used to dis-enroll the freedmen people but we are grateful that there are some officials of the tribe that are willing to study the law and fairly interpret it and are willing to advise tribal leaders to abide by it,” Vann said during a telephone interview Friday.
Some Cherokees and members of other tribes in the southeastern U.S. were slaveholders and they allied with the Confederacy during the Civil War in the 1860s. After the war ended and slavery was abolished, the Cherokee Nation and the federal government signed the Treaty of 1866 which said the freedmen and their descendants “shall have all the rights of native Cherokees,” the ruling noted.
The issue has been debated and litigated over the years and two lawsuits are pending in federal court in Washington.
Friday’s decision came in the case of Raymond Nash, a non-Native American descendant, and more than 200 others who received notices after the amendment passed that their citizenship was being terminated. There were so many who challenged the election outcome that the court appointed a lawyer to represent them and treated all appeals as a class action, said attorney Ralph Keen, who represented the group.
The federal court cases are separate, said Keen, who called the decision a victory for his clients and for treaty rights.
“I believe the ruling strengthens tribal sovereignty because it shows that tribal courts can take on difficult, divisive issues and maintain a strict adherence to the rule of law, regardless of popularity and political influence,” Keen said.