Judge Ruled That Descendants Of The “Black” Cherokee Freedman Can Now Have Tribal Citizenship

On Wednesday August 30th 2017, a US District Judge named Thomas Hogan ruled that Cherokee Freedmen can now officially join the Cherokee Nation, the second-largest tribe in the United States. 

This lawsuit dates back to the year 2003, where descendants of the Freedman, who were either enslaved by or made as indentured servants of the European and Mongolian Cherokee Indians, sued Cherokee Nation, a federally recognized tribe of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” over civilization rights.

The Cherokee Freedmen’s argument is surrounding the Treaty of 1866, which was signed between the US government and the Cherokee based in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. 

The Treaty of 1866 clearly states that “all the rights of native Cherokees” will be passed along to the tribe’s descendants.

Waynetta Lawrie (left), of Tulsa, Okla., stands with others at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City in 2007, during a demonstration by several Cherokee Freedmen and their supporters.

Waynetta Lawrie (left), of Tulsa, Okla., stands with others at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City in 2007, during a demonstration by several Cherokee Freedmen and their supporters.

The federal judge granted the descendants of the Freedman their legal right to tribal citizenship after the lawsuit. 

According to AP, Under the ruling, Cherokee Freedmen gain all the rights tribal citizens enjoy. This includes the right to run for office, vote in election and receive benefits, which also includes tribal health care and housing.

Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree

Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree

In a statement, the Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree (pictured above) said the tribe does not plan to appeal the ruling, stating –

“The Cherokee Nation respects the rule of law, and yesterday we began accepting and processing citizenship applications from Freedmen descendants.” 

“While the US District Court ruled against the Cherokee Nation, I do not see it as a defeat. As the Attorney General, I see this as an opportunity to resolve the Freedmen citizenship issue and allow the Cherokee Nation to move beyond this dispute.”

According to AP, This ruling directly affects more than 2,800 freedmen at this time, but an attorney for the group, John Valie, says there may be as many as 25,000 who are now eligible for citizenship. 

Thomas Hogan wrote in his ruling – 

“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.”

Today, there are well over about 3,000 freedmen descendants.”Nobody wants to have their rights unilaterally stripped away,” said Marilyn Vann, president of the Oklahoma City-based Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, who is one of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. 

“I think the judge made it clear that the freedmen people have rights just like the rest of the citizens have rights, and we can’t be removed at the whim of this chief or that chief.” 

“Going forward, I am hoping that the tribe will come together and we can just be Cherokees, Cherokee people and not freedmen….and maybe we can become the most powerful tribe in the entire country.” 

While there are less 3,000 freedmen registered with the tribe, Vann believes the total number is closer to 30,000 due to the moratorium on registering with the tribe. 

The Cherokee were among the several Native American tribes that owned slaves in the territories they originally inhabited, in the present-day Georgia and Alabama. 

In 1838, the US government forcibly relocated the Cherokee to present-day Oklahoma, in what became known as the “Trail of Tears.” During the 1861-65 Civil War, the Cherokee fought for the Confederacy. 

Tribal leaders had previously argued they have the fundamental right to make the decision of who is a Cherokee They stated that descendants of the freedmen would have to prove they have native ancestry to be allowed in. 

The Cherokee case is “not the end of the road for the Freedmen,” Vann told RT, as more lawsuits will likely be filed over claims of discrimination among the Creek, the Choctaw and the Seminole.