Freedmen dispute continues despite court decision
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
A decision by a federal appeals court in the Cherokee Freedmen controversy resulted in little change from both sides of the dispute on Tuesday.
The Cherokee Nation, repeated its position to "let the courts decide" even after the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that tribal officials can be sued. The case will return to a federal judge who has already called out the tribe for repeatedly marginalizing the descendants of former African slaves.
But as the tribe claimed success, Marilyn Vann, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, wasn't disappointed that the court protected the Cherokee government's sovereign immunity. She said the Freedmen will be able to hold individual officials responsible for allegedly violating an 1866 treaty.
A key critic in Congress also described the decision as a victory. Rep. Diane Watson(D-California) is leading efforts to cut federal funds to the tribe unless the Freedmen are restored to citizenship.
The differing views mean resolution of the dispute is far from over as Congress heads into the final months of the 110th session. Though national issues like the election, gas prices and the economy are dominating the agenda, the Freedmen issue has had a big effect on Indian bills on Capitol Hill.
Last fall, supporters of the Freedmen added language in the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act to prevent the Cherokee Nation from receiving funds under the bill. The Senate passed a version without the provision in May and lawmakers are finally moving to resolve the difference after two months of inaction.
The House is also closer to passing the long-delayed Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which cleared the Senate in February. The bill was finally placed on the House calendar last month though it's not clear whether the Freedmen issue will be addressed.
The tribe views Congressional interference as an affront to all of Indian Country. Chief Chad Smith compared the controversy to the forced relocation of Cherokee ancestors from their homelands in the southeast U.S.
"It remains to be seen whether Congress will treat the Cherokee Nation any differently 170 years later," he said yesterday.
Vann, on the other hand, said the treaty "trumps the right of our elected officials to oppress us." Her attorney, Jon Velie of Oklahoma, said the Freedmen will be able to proceed with the case without infringing on tribal sovereignty.
An estimated 2,800 Freedmen have been temporarily reinstated to citizenship by a Cherokee court. Vann said 23,000 descendants are eligible for citizenship in a tribe with more than 200,000 members.
The 1866 treaty, along with the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ended slavery on the Cherokee Nation. The treaty required the tribe to treat the Freedmen as citizens, according to letters from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The tribe contends that acts of Congress in the early 1900s ended whatever rights the Freedmen may have possessed. The appeals court did not rule on the issue.
D.C. Circuit Decision:
Vann v. Kempthorne (July 29, 2008)
Source URL: http://www.indianz.com/News/2008/010083.asp