The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma said Thursday it will not appeal a federal court decision that descendants of tribal freedmen must be granted tribal membership.
The court’s decision, and the Cherokees’ decision not to appeal it, settles a long-standing rift dating back to the recreation of Oklahoma tribal governments in the 1970s.
“While the U.S. District Court ruled against the Cherokee Nation, I do not see it as a defeat,” Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree said in a written statement. “I see this as an opportunity to resolve the freedmen citizenship issue and allow the Cherokee Nation to move beyond this dispute.”
On Wednesday, Senior Judge Thomas Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled the Cherokee freedmen have the same rights to tribal citizenship as “native Cherokees” under an 1866 treaty.
“When Chief (Bill John) Baker ran in 2011, and again when he was re-elected, he said he wanted to bring closure to this issue,” said Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen Association and one of the litigants in the case.
“An appeal would not have brought closure.”
It was not immediately clear how many people may be affected by the ruling, but Vann noted that about 12 percent of tribe members were freedmen in 1890. A similar percentage applied to the Cherokee Nation’s 350,000 current members would yield around 40,000 freedmen descendants.
In his 78-page opinion, Hogan determined that the 1866 treaty preempted the Cherokee constitution and the tribe’s absolute right to determine its membership.
In the 1970s, when the current Cherokee Nation government was organized after nearly 70 years of dormancy, freedmen were included as full citizens. In the 1980s, however, tribal membership was restricted to descendants of “Cherokees by blood” listed on the 1890s Dawes Rolls.
In 2007, after tribal courts readmitted freedmen descendants, a constitutional amendment was adopted to restrict citizenship.
Vann said she believes the freedmen descendants were originally squeezed out because they wanted to “vote for somebody other than the chief” at that time. Thursday’s news that the Cherokee Nation would not appeal, she said, filled her with “Elation. Gratitude to God. Thankfulness to those who helped get us to this point. It took a lot of teamwork.”
The court’s decision may also have implications for the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole tribal governments, all of whom, like the Cherokees, owned slaves who became freedmen after the Civil War.
The Creeks and Seminoles signed treaties similar to the Cherokees’ in 1866, but the Choctaws did not recognize their freedmen as citizens until 1883, and the Chickasaws never have.
Hembree said his overarching goal in the litigation had been to clarify the freedmen descendants’ status, and that Hogan’s ruling did that.
“My office will work tirelessly to thoroughly review this decision and its legal ramifications,” Hembree said, “and will move forward in a way that best serves the interests of the Cherokee Nation and its citizens, including Freedmen descendants.”