WASHINGTON — The Cherokee Nation and the descendants of slaves who have been suing the tribe for more than a decade have taken an extraordinary step to get a decision from a federal judge.
Cherokee freedmen, the tribe and the federal government filed a joint request for a judge to address the central issue in the dispute — whether an 1866 treaty between the tribe and the U.S. government gave the freedmen the right to tribal citizenship.
The legal filing, made Friday in U.S. District Court here, notes that the original case was first filed in 2003 and that issues about the Cherokee Nation's sovereign immunity have gone twice to a federal appeals court.
“However, despite a decade of active litigation, very little else has been addressed in that case,” the brief states.
Marilyn Vann, the Oklahoman who is the namesake of the original case, has — along with about 2,800 other freedmen — been given provisional citizenship in the tribe while the case is still active.
She said in an interview Monday that the citizenship rights of about 30,000 other people are at stake in the case.
“It's been 10 years and we're still dealing with jurisdiction and procedure,” she said. “If a decision can be made about what rights the freedmen have, a lot of the other things can be worked out or declared moot.”
The freedmen — descendants of slaves owned by individual Cherokees — claim the 1866 treaty gives them all of the rights of tribal citizenship; the federal government agrees and has said so in court filings.
But the Cherokee Nation citizens approved a constitutional amendment in 2007 effectively requiring tribal blood for citizenship. The tribe's highest court upheld that amendment.
While the Vann case was still active, the Cherokee Nation filed its own lawsuit in federal court in Tulsa, leading to more legal wrangling about whether the case should be heard here or in Oklahoma.
The freedmen, the tribe and the federal government told the judge on Friday that they're ready for the main issue to be resolved. According to their filing, they decided in July, after a status conference in the case, to seek a judgment on the core issue of the treaty's meaning.
“This is a way maybe to get a real answer,” Vann said Monday.
However, it won't be quick. The schedule proposed to the judge by the parties takes the legal procedures into late April, and the judge would have no deadline for making a decision.