WASHINGTON — The attorney representing freedmen in their case against the Cherokee Nation said Tuesday that he was shocked the tribe's Supreme Court ruled against the freedmen so close to the special election to pick a new chief.
Attorney Ralph Keen Jr., of Stilwell, said the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court's ruling, which was handed down on Monday, came a day before the tribe's election officials sent out absentee ballots for the election between Chad Smith and Bill John Baker.
The tribal court's decision means about 2,800 freedmen — the ancestors of slaves who had been owned by Cherokee members — won't be able to vote in the Sept. 24 election.
Hall said the timing “shocked me … when you put it in the context of the special tribal election.''
The freedmen who have been fighting for citizenship in the Cherokee Nation consider Smith, the incumbent principal chief, one of their adversaries.
Marilyn Vann, who lost her citizenship because of Monday's ruling, said Tuesday, “It is obvious this decision is the tool (Smith) is using to regain his position as chief and deliver the blow to eliminate my citizenship and other Cherokees who have held this status since 1866.”
Vann is the lead plaintiff in a federal-court case that is still pending.
Freedmen contend that an 1866 treaty between the tribe and the U.S. government conferred citizenship on all former slaves who had been owned by tribal members, along with their descendants.
Cherokee Nation citizens passed a constitutional amendment in 2007 requiring Cherokee blood for membership.
A tribal district judge tossed the constitutional amendment early this year, ruling that it violated the 1866 treaty.
But the tribe's Supreme Court overturned the judge's decision on Monday and ruled that it didn't have the authority to tell the tribal members how they could amend their own constitution. The court said “a fair reading” of the 1866 treaty indicates that the freedmen were to be treated as equals “under the federal law as it existed at that time.”
Diane Hammons, the Cherokee Nation Attorney General, said, “The court basically held that … the people properly exercised their right to amend their own Constitution and the court could not interfere with that right.”