This week, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will be the latest venue to hear arguments in the Cherokee Freedmen citizenship dispute—the ongoing legal battle over whether descendants of liberated Cherokee-owned slaves should be entitled to tribal citizenship rights in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
The debate has lingered in and out of the courts for decades. Thursday, October 18th will be the latest legal round for Vann, et al v. Salazar, a nine-year-old federal suit filed by a Cherokee Freedwoman against the Secretary of the Department of Interior.
At issue is whether the Cherokee Freedmen—a term used by today’s descendants— are guaranteed “all the rights of Native Cherokees,” including tribal citizenship. Those words were included in the last treaty signed between the tribe and the U.S. government when the Cherokee freed their slaves and made them citizens of the tribe at the end of the Civil War.
The Cherokee Nation has long-contested that the Treaty of 1866, as its known, no longer applies to the Cherokee Freedmen of today. Meanwhile, as a sovereign Indian nation, tribal leaders assert that only it has the right to determine its own citizenry. But the Department of the Interior—the federal agency that oversees tribal matters—contends the tens of thousands of African-American progeny of former Cherokee-owned slaves are owed their treaty rights just as their American Indian counterparts have reclaimed over time.
Vann v. Salazar will return to the D.C. Circuit court where it was argued in 2008. From that hearing, a three-judge panel unanimously remanded the case back to the D.C. District Court. Last October, U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. dismissed the suit altogether based on the issue of sovereign immunity—the legal doctrine protecting federally recognized tribes, such as the Cherokee Nation, from being sued in U.S. Court. Attorney’s for the Cherokee Freedmen appealed the case in November.
Cherokee Freedwoman Marilyn Vann filed the lawsuit nearly a decade ago after she was denied the right to vote in the 2003 tribal election. Today, she is one of roughly 2,800 former slave descendants temporarily enrolled in the tribe. Figures predict there are anywhere from 20,000 to 120,000 mostly African-American individuals who would be eligible for tribal citizenship should Vann win her case.
Critics of the Cherokee Freedmen have implied the group are merely ethnic opportunists seeking to gain access to a host of entitlement programs linked to low-to-no cost healthcare, college scholarships, housing assistance and Cherokee-preference employment.
In 2009, the Cherokee Nation filed its own lawsuit against five Cherokee Freedmen in Cherokee Nation v. Nash. That case is pending in the Northern District Court of Oklahoma in Tulsa.