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Cherokee Nation chief addresses citizenship
Monday, July 9, 2007
Filed Under: National

Cherokee Nation citizenship is not based on blood quantum, Chief Chad Smith said on Saturday.

The leader of the second-largest tribe in the country said membership depends on having Cherokee ancestry. Citizenship is traced to the Dawes Roll, a federal census taken in the late 1800s.

"We don't care what color you are, what background you are, as long as you have a common Cherokee ancestor," Smith said at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. "So we don't have a blood quantum."

But blood has entered the picture with the recent disenrollment of the Freedmen, who are the descendants of former African slaves. In March, Cherokee voters changed their constitution to deny citizenship to anyone who can't prove they have a Cherokee, Delaware or Shawnee ancestor.

The Dawes Roll lists the Freedmen ancestors but it does not indicate their Indian ancestry. That means upwards of 3,000 African descendants won't be able to vote or receive tribal health, education and other services as a result of the vote.

Amid national controversy over the issue, the Cherokee Nation has temporarily reinstated citizenship to the Freedmen. They were able to vote in a June 23 election in which Smith won a third term as principal chief.

But to Marilyn Vann, the president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, temporary citizenship isn't enough. She's the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that seeks to cut funds to the tribe until African descendants are treated like other Cherokee citizens.

"We will exercise the rights we have but not stop fighting for full equality," Vann said last month after a judge refused to halt the election.

The Interior Department doesn't plan on cutting funds to the tribe. But assistant secretary Carl Artman warned in a recent letter that the Freedmen were promised citizenship in an 1866 treaty.

"I recognize the Cherokee Nation as a sovereign nation capable of managing its government without oversight of the federal government," Artman said in the May 21 letter. "I also recognize that the United States 1866 treaty with the Cherokee Nation was somewhat unusual in its requirement that the Cherokee Nation recognize the rights of individual Freedmen in exchange for amnesty and the continuation of the government-to-government relationship between the United States and the Nation."

The court case aims to resolve whether the Cherokee Nation can remove the Freedmen without violating the treaty. A federal judge has already ruled that the tribe can be sued, saying its sovereign immunity was waived by Congress through the treaty and by the Thirteenth Amendment the U.S. Constitution, which outlaws slavery.

Meanwhile, Rep. Diane Watson (D-California) has introduced a bill to cut federal funding to the tribe and federal approval of the tribe's gaming operation until the Freedmen are restored. The measure has been referred to the House Natural Resources Committee and the House Judiciary Committee.

Smith spoke at NMAI during the screening of "Trail of Tears Cherokee Legacy," a documentary about the forced removal of Cherokee ancestors from their homeland in the Southeast to Oklahoma. Along with filmmakers Steven Heape, a tribal member, and Chip Richie, Smith took questions about Cherokee history and culture.

BIA Letters:
June 22, 2007 | May 21, 2007 | March 28, 2007 | August 30, 2006

Sovereign Immunity Court Decision:
Vann v. Kempthorne (December 19, 2006)

Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal Decision in Freedmen Case:
Allen v. Cherokee Nation (March 7, 2006)

Relevant Links:
Cherokee Nation -
Freedmen Of The Five Civilized Tribes -
Freedmen Conference -

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