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Washington, D.C., appeals court rules for Cherokee freedmen

Federal appellate court says freedmen lawsuit can go forward even without the Cherokee Nation as a party. Ruling means issue of freedmen membership now alive in two U.S. courts.
by Chris Casteel Published: December 15, 2012

A federal lawsuit filed here against the Cherokee Nation by the descendants of freedmen can continue even without the tribe's consent, a U.S. appeals court ruled Friday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District Columbia reversed a district court judge, who concluded last year that the suit couldn't go forward because the tribe had invoked its sovereign immunity to exclude itself as a party. The appeals court on Friday reinstated the suit, ruling that the principal chief is still a defendant and is, in effect, “one and the same” as the Cherokee Nation.

“As a result, the Principal Chief can adequately represent the Cherokee Nation in this suit, meaning that the Cherokee Nation itself is not a required party,” the court ruled, citing court precedents involving similar circumstances.

The decision on Friday means the issue of whether freedmen descendants are entitled to tribal citizenship is alive in two separate federal courts — one here and another in Tulsa.

While the tribe was fighting the case here under former Principal Chief Chad Smith, it filed its own lawsuit in Tulsa against the freedmen.

The Obama administration has intervened in the Tulsa case on the side of the freedmen, saying an 1866 treaty that allowed the freed slaves of individual Cherokees to be members of the tribe is still in effect for the descendants of those freed slaves.

The administration is asking the judge in Tulsa for a declaratory judgment that the 1866 treaty “provided Cherokee Freedmen and their descendants with ‘all the rights of native Cherokees,' including the right to citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.”

The Cherokee Nation approved a constitutional amendment in 2007 requiring tribal blood for citizenship and effectively barring non-Indian freedmen. The tribe's highest court upheld the tribe's right to set the rules for its membership.

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by Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. After covering the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City, he moved to Washington in 1990, where...
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