TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) — The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court has reversed a lower tribal court decision that voided a voter-approved constitutional amendment denying citizenship to non-Native American descendants of tribal members' former black slaves.
In a 10-page opinion, tribal court justices wrote that the Cherokee Freedmen, as they are known, were never afforded citizenship in the tribe by the Treaty of 1866 but that a “fair reading indicates that it was an expression by the parties that the Freedmen would be treated as equals” to Cherokees under federal law that existed at the time.
The former slaves were granted citizenship status in the tribe by an 1866 constitutional amendment to the 1839 Cherokee Nation Constitution, the opinion read.
“It stands to reason that if the Cherokee people had the right to define the Cherokee Nation citizenship in the above-mentioned 1866 constitutional amendment they would have the sovereign right to change the definition of Cherokee Nation citizenship in their sovereign expression in the March 3, 2007, constitutional amendment,” the opinion stated.
The court sent the case back to the district court and ordered that it be dismissed.
A Jan. 14 tribal district court ruling nullified the 2007 amendment requiring tribal citizens to have a Native American ancestor listed on the Dawes Roll on the grounds it violated the 1866 treaty.
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 January ruling noted.
The lower court decision came in the case of hundreds of non-Native American descendants who received notices after the amendment passed that their citizenship was being terminated.
Stilwell attorney Ralph Keen, who represented the descendants in the case, didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.
Olive Anderson, a descendant of one of the freed slaves, said she was shocked by the ruling and didn't know if the plaintiffs had additional recourse in the tribal courts.
“It's a sad day in the Cherokee Nation when you have people who have been singled out like the black Indians have been,” she said by telephone from Kansas City, Mo.
“We're not asking for anything. We were born into this. Our people were on the Trail of Tears, too,” Anderson said, referring to the long, deadly trek Cherokees and other Native American tribes endured after they were forcibly removed from the lands in the 1800s.
Diane Hammons, the Cherokee Nation's attorney general, had argued previously that tribal members could amend their
“The court basically held that because the people properly exercised their right to amend their own constitution… the court could not interfere with that right,” Hammons said in a statement released by the tribe.
A tribal spokeswoman didn't immediately return a request seeking comment from acting principal chief S. Joe Crittenden.
A case involving the tribe and the former slaves' descendants is pending in federal court in Washington D.C.