During the antebellum period, the Cherokee and other Southeast Native American nations known as the Five Civilized Tribes held African-American slaves and took them as workers and property to Indian Territory. After the American Civil War, the Cherokee Freedmen became citizens of the Cherokee Nation in accordance with a reconstruction treaty made with the United States in 1866.
In the early 1980s, the Cherokee Nation administration amended citizenship rules to require direct descent from an ancestor listed on the “Cherokee By Blood” section of the Dawes Rolls. The change stripped descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen of citizenship and voting rights unless they satisfied this new criterion. On March 7, 2006, the Cherokee Supreme Court ruled that the descendants of the Cherokee Freedmen were unconstitutionally kept from enrolling as citizens and were allowed to enroll in the Cherokee Nation. Chad “Corntassel” Smith, then-Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, called for an emergency election to amend the constitution in response to the ruling. After a petition was circulated, a special election held on March 3, 2007 resulted in a constitutional amendment that disenrolled the Cherokee Freedmen descendants. This led to several legal proceedings in United States and Cherokee Nation courts in which the Freedmen descendants continued to press for their treaty rights and recognition as Cherokee Nation members.
The 2007 constitutional amendment was voided in Cherokee Nation district court on January 14, 2011, but was overturned by a 4-1 ruling in Cherokee Nation Supreme Court on August 22, 2011. The ruling excluded the Cherokee Freedmen descendants from voting in the special run-off election for Principal Chief. After the freezing of $33 million in funds by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and a letter from the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in response to the ruling, an agreement was made in federal court between the Cherokee Nation, the Freedmen descendants and the US government. This allowed the Freedmen descendants to vote in the special election.
Finally, this case seems to be settled:
A judge ruled Wednesday that the descendants of enslaved people who were owned by members of the Cherokee Nation — known as Cherokee Freedmen — have citizenship rights.
“The Cherokee Nation can continue to define itself as it sees fit,” U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan wrote in his ruling, “but must do so equally and evenhandedly with respect to native Cherokees and the descendants of Cherokee Freedmen.”
Cherokee Nation is not putting up a fight:
The tribe’s attorney general, Todd Hembree, said in a statement Thursday evening [pdf] that the Cherokee Nation does not intend to appeal the decision.
“The Cherokee Nation respects the rule of law, and yesterday we began accepting and processing citizenship applications from Freedmen descendants,” Hembree said. “While the U.S. District Court ruled against the Cherokee Nation, I do not see it as a defeat. As the Attorney General, I see this as an opportunity to resolve the Freedmen citizenship issue and allow the Cherokee Nation to move beyond this dispute.”
Good for him.