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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

Jon Velie, a Norman attorney who has represented the freedmen in both cases, said Friday that he and Marilyn Vann, the lead plaintiff in the case against the Cherokee Nation, were “extremely happy” with the appeals court decision.

Velie said he would likely ask for a delay in the Oklahoma case and pursue the case in Washington, where it has been for several years, since the district court judge and the appeals court are familiar with the issues.

Though the only issue before the appeals court here was whether the lawsuit could go forward without the tribe as a party, the court on Friday seemed to indicate some sympathy with the freedmen position about their rights to membership.

In a statement about the background of the case, the court wrote that the 1866 treaty “guaranteed the former Cherokee slaves and their descendants — known as the Freedmen — ‘all the rights of native Cherokees' in perpetuity …' Those rights included the right to tribal membership and the right to vote in tribal elections.

“At some point, the Cherokee Nation decided that the Freedmen were no longer members of the tribe and could no longer vote in tribal elections.”

Tribal officials, the freedmen and Obama administration attorneys reached an agreement last fall that allowed about 2,800 freedmen to vote in an election for chief. There are an estimated 25,000 Cherokee freedmen in the United States, Velie said.

The Cherokee Nation did not respond to a request for comment.

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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