Cherokee Freedmen win tribal citizenship lawsuit

The Cherokee Freedman are full citizens of the Cherokee Nation, the tribe's highest court ruled on Tuesday.

In a 2-1 decision, the Judicial Appeals Tribunal said the Freedmen, who are descendants of African-American slaves, retain citizenship, voting rights and other privileges despite attempts to keep them off the tribal rolls for not having identifiable "Indian" blood. The court said the only way to legally terminate the Freedmen's citizenship is through the Cherokee constitution.

"[I]f the Cherokee people wish to limit tribal citizenship, and such limitation would terminate the pre-existing citizenship of even one Cherokee citizen, then it must be done in the open," the court wrote.

The tribunal said the tribal court system is the "only" forum to address citizenship and internal tribal questions. The Cherokee Nation had argued that not even the tribal courts could be used to address membership disputes.

The dispute stems to the 1980s, according to David Cornsilk, a Cherokee lawyer who represented Lucy Allen, 73, a Freedmen descendant, who sued when she was told she couldn't vote. Although the 1975 constitution doesn't limit tribal citizenship by blood, Cornsilk said former principal chief Ross Swimmer felt threatened by the Freedmen vote and was able to orchestrate new rules barring people without "Indian" blood from voting.

Get the Story:
Freedmen are tribal citizens (The Muskogee Daily Phoenix 3/8)
Freedmen lost voting rights during contentious 1983 election (The Muskogee Daily Phoenix 3/8)

Court Decision:
Allen v. Cherokee Nation (March 7, 2006)

Relevant Documents:
Jeanette Hanna Letter (July 11, 2003)| Chad Smith to Jeannette Hanna (July 14, 2003) | Chad Smith to Gale Norton (July 14, 2003) | Jeanette Hanna Letter (July 25, 2003) | Hastings Shade Letter (August 5, 2003)

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

Related Stories:
Cherokee chief wants to sue BIA over constitution (02/15)
Freedmen descendants shut out of Cherokee Nation (11/22)
Ex-Cherokee councilors fined for Freedmen support (08/23)
Cherokee Nation seeks role in Freedmen lawsuit (02/21)
Cherokee Freedmen caught in high-level dispute (8/20)
Cherokee Nation chief sworn in for another term (8/15)
Cherokee Freedmen sue BIA for disenfranchisement (8/12)