Oklahoma tribe appeals freedmen ruling to high court

By Rochelle Hines
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP) January 2011

The Cherokee Nation recently asked the tribe’s highest court to restore a constitutional amendment approved by voters that would deny citizenship to non-Native American descendants of tribal members’ former black slaves.

Besides asking Cherokee Nation Supreme Court to overturn a district court ruling that voided the amendment, the tribe also asked for more time to process some citizenship applications.

The Jan. 14 ruling by Judge John Cripps nullified the 2007 voter-approved amendment requiring tribal citizens to have a Native American ancestor listed on the Dawes Roll on grounds it violated an 1866 treaty between the tribe and the federal government that granted citizenship to the freedmen and their descendants.

“A constitutional case of this magnitude should be decided by the Cherokee Nation’s highest court,” Cherokee Nation Attorney General Diane Hammons said in a statement.

Hammons said the district court didn’t go by a 2006 tribal supreme court ruling that said Cherokee citizens have the “ultimate authority” to decide who can be a citizen.

“The district court also failed to address or recognize any of the cited federal statutes or cases that have construed that pertinent portion of the 1866 treaty, in which the U.S. government limited the treaty rights of non-Indians,” Hammons said.

The district court ruling came in the case of hundreds of non-Native American descendants who received notices after the amendment passed that their citizenship was being terminated. There were so many who challenged the election outcome that the court appointed a lawyer to represent them and treated all appeals as a class action.

The court filing seeks to delay the part of Cripps’ ruling that the tribe had 30 days from the date of the order to process applications of non-Indians seeking tribal citizenship.

Attorney Ralph Keen, who represents a group of freedmen descendants, said he’s not surprised that the tribe has appealed Cripps’ ruling.

“I look forward to arguing the matter before the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court and I am confident that the court will uphold the justice that the district court gave us,” Keen said from his Stilwell office.

Keen said he had 30 days to answer the tribe’s appeal petition.

A hearing on the stay request has been scheduled for Feb. 2 in Tahlequah, Keen said.