Cherokee freedmen ruling in D.C. case is overturned
BY JARREL WADE World Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2012
12/15/12 at 5:06 AM
Read the opinion See the history of the Freedmen issue and the appeals court’s
A federal appeals court on Friday brought back to life a lawsuit by Cherokee freedmen against the Cherokee Nation, reversing a lower court's ruling that had thrown out the case.
"The ruling is a significant ruling because it puts the Cherokee Nation's officials back in court," tribal Attorney General Todd Hembree said. However, "I'm pleased that the court reaffirmed that the Cherokee Nation is a sovereign nation."
The case was filed in 2003 in federal court for the District of Columbia. It accused the tribe's chief of breaking federal law by not honoring the Treaty of 1866, which made tribal freedmen - former slaves of the tribe and their descendants - members of the tribe with full voting rights.
The lawsuit was dismissed in 2011 when the federal court ruled that the case could not continue without the Cherokee Nation, itself, as a defendant but that because the Cherokee Nation is a sovereign entity, it cannot be sued without its permission.
Friday's ruling allows Principal Chief Bill John Baker to be named a defendant in his capacity as chief, allowing the tribe, essentially, to be represented through his office.
Marilyn Vann, a Cherokee freedmen spokeswoman and plaintiff in the case, said she will push forward with the lawsuit.
"We're going to continue until our rights are thoroughly vindicated," Vann said. "This brings us one step closer to us being able to have a court say - hopefully once and for all - that these are the rights of these people and they are what the parties agreed on in 1866, and nothing has happened to change this."
Another freedmen lawsuit against the Cherokee Nation remains in U.S. District Court in Tulsa.
Hembree said the Oklahoma case is developing as expected but that Friday's ruling is a setback for the District of Columbia case.
"Literally, we'll be starting from scratch," he said.
The District of Columbia case was heard before a now-retired district judge, so a new trial will have to start fresh in front of a new judge, Hembree said.
Although the lawsuit was filed in 2003, the issues go back generations.
The descendants of the freed slaves have been working to be included fully 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 tribe voted in modern times to remove the slaves' descendants from the tribe if they don't have Cherokee blood.
Regardless of either lawsuit's jurisdiction or specific arguments, Hembree said he is eager to get the issue settled in court.
"We want this issue resolved one way or the other," he said. "This issue has plagued the nation for years."
Original Print Headline: Cherokee freedmen ruling reversed
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