January 23, 2017

Cherokee Nation moving on with freedmen lawsuit

TULSA, Okla. (AP) – Cherokee Nation will continue to pursue a federal lawsuit against the Cherokee freedmen descendants as a matter of settling a multigenerational issue, as well as a pivotal challenge to the nation’s sovereignty.

Chief Bill John Baker’s position on the freedmen issue has been shrouded, with his official statement being: No comment pending litigation.

However, Baker has appeared to endear himself to the freedmen descendants, who are thought to have voted overwhelmingly for him in the last election.

Whether the new administration is seeking a resolution to include the descendants of freed slaves of the Cherokees, the case cannot be simply dropped because the court’s ruling is needed to refine the Cherokees’ position as a sovereign nation, Cherokee Attorney General Diane Hammons told the Tulsa World.

“The freedmen issue is complicated and has been since 1866,” Hammons said in an email.

“You see, just dropping the Nash case would solve almost nothing. ... You would still have all those competing factors and would not have a federal court resolution on what the applicable provisions of the Treaty of 1866 really meant at the time and mean today.”

Freedmen descendants have been in a contentious battle to be fully included in the Cherokee Nation pursuant to the Treaty of 1866 between the Cherokees and the U.S. government.

The treaty put freed Cherokee slaves on the Cherokee Nation’s rolls.

But many in the nation voted recently to remove the slaves’ descendants from the nation if they also don’t have Cherokee blood.

Freedmen descendants leaders said they respect Baker’s position because they, too, see the need for the court to answer long-standing questions.

Because of the Cherokee vote to change the nation’s constitution and oust the freedmen descendants, several lawsuits and appeals have gone through both tribal and federal courts.

Meanwhile, the United States has levied punishments against the tribe, withholding money and threatening other actions if freedmen descendants are not included in Cherokee voting and registration.

“I can’t speak for Chief Baker, but I’m certain he understands how weighty and complex the issues are,” Hammons said.

“While the attorney general is tasked with controlling the nation’s litigation, this issue is bigger than just the pending litigation,” she added.

Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen Association, said that even though she respects the need for a court ruling, she thinks Baker could be working proactively to mend some of the descendants’ grievances.

Vann said the Cherokee Nation was filled with misinformation that led to a petition and eventually the vote to oust the freedmen descendants from the tribe during the former administration of Chief Chad Smith.

As the issue works its way through the courts, Vann said she would like to see some education among Cherokees about the descendants.

Vann said the majority of Cherokee freedmen descendants can trace their bloodlines to Cherokee people but still want to be recognized as descendants of freedmen.

Also, Vann said the actual freedmen were not forced on the Cherokee tribe but were accepted.

Meanwhile, other Native American tribes that were adopted into the Cherokee Nation remain fully accepted, she said.

“Only the freedmen are being discriminated against,” Vann said. “That’s a sore point with us. The other adopted tribes aren’t being prevented from registering their children.”

Vann said the misinformation about freedmen descendants led many people who didn’t fully understand the history to sign the petition to call for a vote and later to vote for the ouster.

“There’s a lot that can be done in this area,” she said. “We’re going to wait and see. We’re still in court, and we’ll see what Mr. Baker does.”