Freedmen seek injunction to protect citizenship 5-9-07

- Descendants of former slaves held by members of the Cherokee Nation have asked a federal court to stop the tribe and federal authorities from implementing the results of a tribal election that revoked their tribal citizenship.
Six so-called Cherokee freedmen, descendants of Cherokee slaves and
free black Cherokees, requested an injunction against the tribe and
the federal government in papers filed on Tuesday in U.S. District
Court in Washington, D.C.

The request accuses the tribe of violating a 141-year-old treaty and
asks that the government be barred from recognizing Cherokee
elections and distributing federal money to the tribe until tribal
officials restore citizenship rights to an estimated 2,800 freedmen.

In a March 3 election, tribal members overwhelmingly approved an
amendment to the tribal Constitution to limit citizenship to
descendants of “by blood” tribal members. The vote removed
descendants of the tribe's freed slaves from tribal rolls and denied
them tribal benefits, according to court papers.

On March 21, freedmen received letters stating their citizenship
status had been changed following the election.

On March 28, Charlene White, one of six freedmen seeking the
injunction, received a letter stating she was “no longer eligible to
receive medical benefits from the Cherokee Nation” as a result of
the vote.

Unless the injunction is granted, the Cherokee Nation - the largest
Indian tribe in the United States with about 250,000 members - will
also deny freedmen their right to vote and run for tribal office in
the next election, scheduled June 23.

In a statement, Mike Miller, communications officer for the
Tahlequah-based tribe, said the injunction request was “routine
legal posturing” and accused freedmen of using the legal process to
“grab headlines” and attack the tribe's sovereignty.

Miller questioned why freedmen have not appealed their citizenship
revocation in tribal courts, which granted them citizenship rights
last year.

Opponents of the tribal election said it was motivated by racism.
Miller said the vote was part of an effort to restore cultural
identity to the tribe following more than a century of federal policy
aimed at stripping it of its heritage.

He said the fundamental issue for Cherokees is to decide for
themselves who is eligible to become a tribal citizen.

“The right to define tribal membership lies at the core of tribal
identity and self-governance,” Miller said. “We passionately
believe that you must be an Indian to be in an Indian tribe.”

Freedmen accuse the tribe of violating provisions of the Treaty of
1866, in which the tribe freed its slaves and guaranteed them and
their descendants full citizenship rights, as well as the Thirteenth
Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States.

Jon Velie, lead counsel for the freedmen, said the case is important
in federal Indian law in determining an individual's right to retain
tribal citizenship and for tribes who want to retain treaty rights.

Marilyn Vann, leader of the Freedmen Band of the Cherokee Nation of
Oklahoma, said she and other freedmen seeking the injunction feel a
duty to stand up for their ancestors and future generations of

“I will not stand by and watch as others attempt to strip me of who
I am,” Vann said.