Descendants of African-American former slaves seek federal injunction to protect Cherokee citizenship
Descendants of former slaves held by members of the Cherokee Nation have asked a federal court to stop the tribe and federal authorities from implementing the results of a tribal election that revoked their tribal citizenship.
Six so-called Cherokee freedmen, descendants of Cherokee slaves and free black Cherokees, requested an injunction against the tribe and the federal government in papers filed on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
The request accuses the tribe of violating a 141-year-old treaty and asks that the government be barred from recognizing Cherokee elections and distributing federal money to the tribe until tribal officials restore citizenship rights to an estimated 2,800 freedmen.
In a March 3 election, tribal members overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the tribal Constitution to limit citizenship to descendants of “by blood” tribal members. The vote removed descendants of the tribe’s freed slaves from tribal rolls and denied them tribal benefits, according to court papers.
On March 21, freedmen received letters stating their citizenship status had been changed following the election.
On March 28, Charlene White, one of six freedmen seeking the injunction, received a letter stating she was “no longer eligible to receive medical benefits from the Cherokee Nation” as a result of the vote.
Unless the injunction is granted, the Cherokee Nation — the largest Indian tribe in the United States with about 250,000 members — will also deny freedmen their right to vote and run for tribal office in the next election, scheduled June 23.
In a statement, Mike Miller, communications officer for the Tahlequah-based tribe, said the injunction request was “routine legal posturing” and accused freedmen of using the legal process to “grab headlines” and attack the tribe’s sovereignty.
Miller questioned why freedmen have not appealed their citizenship revocation in tribal courts, which granted them citizenship rights last year.
Opponents of the tribal election said it was motivated by racism. Miller said the vote was part of an effort to restore cultural identity to the tribe following more than a century of federal policy aimed at stripping it of its heritage.
He said the fundamental issue for Cherokees is to decide for themselves who is eligible to become a tribal citizen.
“The right to define tribal membership lies at the core of tribal identity and self-governance,” Miller said. “We passionately believe that you must be an Indian to be in an Indian tribe.”
Freedmen seeking injunction, possible election delay