Tuesday, July 29, 2008 7:37 PM CDT in News

By Aaron Sadler
The Morning News
WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Tuesday cleared the way for Cherokee Freedmen to move forward with a lawsuit that challenges their ouster from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

The Freedmen claim a right to tribal membership as descendants of Cherokee slaves. The Cherokee booted them from the tribe in a March 2007 vote.

Tuesday’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia clarified that tribal leaders may be subject to lawsuits, even as the Cherokee Nation as an entity is protected from court action.

The Freedmen celebrated the decision, while the Tahlequah-based tribe praised the ruling as an affirmation of the Cherokee’s sovereignty.

A lower court will now decide whether U.S. government and Cherokee Nation officials can disregard an 1866 treaty authorizing tribal benefits to freed slaves and their descendants.

“We see this as a full victory, we’re excited about this,” said Jon Velie, the attorney for the Freedmen group. “The court crafted an opinion that protects both tribal sovereignty and individual Indian rights.”

The decision is the latest in a long-running dispute over whether the Freedmen are eligible for tribal benefits. The fight has even reached Congress, where bills have been introduced to force the Cherokee to restore the group’s rights or else lose federal grant money.

The ousted Freedmen count 23,000 among their ranks. Tribal courts have temporarily reinstated the group while the lawsuit is pending.

In 2003, the Freedmen sued the U.S. interior secretary because of the federal government’s interpretation of the Cherokee’s rights under the treaty. When the tribe sought to intervene in the case, the Freedmen added the nation and its officials, including Principal Chief Chad Smith, to the suit.

The three-judge panel reversed a lower court decision that made the tribe a party to the suit.

“This decision is a strong affirmation for tribes across the country, who rely upon federal courts to uphold tribal sovereignty when it comes under attack,” Smith said in a statement. “The court once again acknowledged that tribes have inherent sovereignty that predates the founding of the United States, and that tribal sovereign immunity still exists today.”

The Cherokee Nation, by a 77 percent margin, voted last year to consider as tribal members only those blood relatives of Indians listed on a century-old registry known as the Dawes Rolls.

The Freedmen seek court relief to bar future Cherokee elections unless the excluded group can participate and run for office.

Here is the link on the court decision:


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  1. Josie

    I don’t see this is too big a victory for the Freedmen. They wanted to sue the tribe and were denied. Even though the decision says they can sue the leadership of the tribe, that is not a victory. Individuals have always had the right to sue other individuals. To sue the chief will not gain anything. The chief cannot give them the Freedmen what they want. It is the tribe that voted to amend the constitution.

  2. Ann


    As the article states in this comment:

    “The Freedmen celebrated the decision, while the Tahlequah-based tribe praised the ruling as an affirmation of the Cherokee’s sovereignty.”

    BOTH parties are celebrating, but, unfortunately for different reasons.

    The CN itself still retains its sovereignty and unfortunately cannot be sued.

  3. Josie,

    It’s not true that tribal councils have been subject to lawsuits. They have been able to hide behind sovereignty shields and this case IS a victory because the court UNANIMOUSLY ruled that they were not able to use sovereignty as a shield. It was also a victory for sovereinty as it still applies.

    The Cherokee nation’s council stepped outside the legal (Cherokee laws) and can now be held accountable.

    This opens the door to other people that have had their rights violated by their tribe. my blog discusses our own issues with disenrollment and civil rights violations. We look forward to having this precedent as our own tribe violated the Pechanga Constitution and bylaws. The pending lawsuits just got a bit stronger. There are lots of problems in California’s Indian Country and we are working hard to bring that out. Thank goodness the Congressional Black Caucus has held the line here. We look forward to Rep. Diane Watson to take on the problems in California too.

  4. D. Fixin


    You should look a litter closer at the court opinion. The court found the “tribe’s sovereign immunity intact.” It later stated that “On remand, the district court must determine whether ‘in equity or good conscience’ the suit can proceed with the Cherokee Nation’s officers but without the Cherokee Nation.” Additionally, the Cherokee Nation’s counsil has been sued on a number of occasions in its tribal court.
    I sympathize with you abou the situation in Pechanga. I wish Ms. Watson would focus on the problems with tribes in California – where she was elected. There seems to be more than enough problems in her district for her to be concerned about, not only with the tribes.

  5. Tsalagi Ageyv

    The news article above stated, “The ousted Freedmen count 23,000 among their ranks. Tribal courts have temporarily reinstated the group while the lawsuit is pending.”

    There are around 2,800 non-Indian Freedmen descendants who signed up citizenship and benefits since the Cherokee Nation JAT in a 2-1 decision allowed citizenship about 26 months ago or so. These approximate 2,800 individuals have been temporairly reinstated while lawsuit is pending.

    I noticed that the non-Indian Freedmen descendant’s attorney has repeatedly stated in the press that there are 23,000 individuals “locked out” of the Cherokee Nation. Apparently this is his estimated number of descendants who may or may not be counted as part of their group/ranks. However, and again, in reality this is not the number of descendants who actually signed up for citizenship and who have been temporarily reinstated.

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