Cherokee Nation accepts court ruling and welcomes Freedmen for citizenship
It's official: a long-running dispute affecting the descendants of former slaves held within the Cherokee Nation is over.
The tribe is accepting a landmark federal court ruling that confirmed the citizenship rights of the Cherokee Freedmen, Attorney General Todd Hembree said. Their enrollment applications are now being processed after a 10-year hiatus.
"The Cherokee Nation respects the rule of law, and yesterday we began accepting and processing citizenship applications from Freedmen descendants,' Hembree, the tribe's top legal official, said in a statement. "I do not intend to file an appeal."
About 2,800 Freedmen descendants gained Cherokee citizenship after winning a historic tribal court ruling in 2006. But new applications were put on hold after the tribe in 2007 changed its constitution in a way that explicitly denied the Freedmen their rights.
An August 29 ruling from Judge Thomas F. Hogan settled the issue once and for all. He said a treaty signed in 1866, following the end of the Civil War, guarantees citizenship to the descendants of former slaves.
"The history, negotiations, and practical construction of the 1866 treaty suggest no other result," Hogan wrote in the 78-page ruling on Wednesday.
"Consequently, the Cherokee Freedmen’s right to citizenship in the Cherokee Nation is directly proportional to native Cherokees’ right to citizenship," Hogan continued.
The ruling came right before the tribe celebrated its National Holiday over the Labor Day weekend. Cherokee Freedmen marched in the parade on Saturday and Chief Bill John Baker called for "healing" in the wake of the decision.
"We are strong. We are resilient. We are the descendants of Cherokees who endured unimaginable hardships," Baker said in his State of the Nation address on Saturday. "Our Freedmen brothers and sisters made that Trail of Tears journey with us."
"We are taking steps to begin the healing for all parties," Baker added. "It has gone on far too long, inflicted too much pain upon too many people and caused too much division within our own communities."
"Let the healing begin so together we can move forward to a better future," he said.
Later during the National Holiday, Baker welcomed Marilyn Vann, one of the plaintiffs in the litigation and the president of the Descendants of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, and other Freedmen to a worship service on Sunday.
And in another development, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court confirmed that Freedmen citizens can run and hold tribal office. A preliminary injunction was issued on Friday to ensure the tribe complies with the federal ruling.
The injunction makes clear that the 2007 constitutional provisions which singled out the Freedmen are not valid within the Cherokee Nation because they violate the 1866 treaty. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had never accepted the changes because of the Freedmen issue.
The number of Freedmen eligible for Cherokee citizenship is unknown. Some estimates have ranged as high as the tens of thousands.
Cherokee citizenship is traced to the Dawes Roll. Freedmen descendants can enroll so long as their ancestor appears on the so-called Wallace Roll of Cherokee Freedmen.