Chads Words from the Chiefs Corner                                     March 8 2006
Discussion of Freedmen Citizenship

Recently, the Judicial Appeal Tribunal (JAT), the Cherokee Nation's Supreme Court, held in the case of Lucy Allen vs Cherokee Nation Tribal Council that a 1983 Cherokee Nation Law that limited citizenship in the Cherokee Nation to Cherokees, Shawnees and Delawares by blood was unconstitutional because it excluded Freedmen. The JAT considered this same issue in 2001 in the case of Riggs v. Ummerteskee and at that time the JAT held the law was constitutional. Freedmen were former slaves of Cherokees by blood and were emancipated and given Cherokee Nation citizenship by a 1866 amendment to our 1839 Constitution after the American Civil War.

In the case of Lucy Allen, the JAT reversed itself by ruling that Article III of our 1975 Constitution was not clear enough when Cherokees voted on the constitution to exclude the Freedmen.

Article III provided that Cherokee Nation citizens were descendants of the Dawes Rolls, including Shawnees and Delawares. The 1975 Constitution was adopted by a margin of more than 6 to 1. Although the interpretation of Article III is controversial as to whether it excluded Freedmen or not, it is very clear that the determination of who may or may not become a citizen is a question reserved for the Cherokee voters.

Many Cherokees, including those who wrote the 1975 Constitution, believe that Cherokee voters understood that a vote to approve the 1975 Constitution would exclude Freedmen from citizenship. Many of those voting to exclude the Freedmen believe that an Indian nation should be composed of Indians, that Freedmen were compensated with allotments unlike freed slaves in the South after the American Civil War. These Cherokees believe the Freedmen did not help during the last 100 hundred years to rebuild the Cherokee Nation and should not at this late time reap any benefits that Cherokees have earned.

Others believe the Cherokee Nation should be an Indian republic like it was before Oklahoma Statehood when it had 7 million acres of exclusive land and was composed of five culture/ethnic groups including the Cherokees by blood, Delawares by blood, Shawnees by blood, Inter-married whites and Freedmen. These people believe this historic citizenship should be continued into the future.

Of course there is another class of people who see some political benefit in exclusion or inclusion of the Freedmen.

Regardless of one's point of view, the Lucy Allen case reinforces the principle that the Constitutional government of the Cherokee Nation is the same constitutional government formed in 1839. It properly destroys the falsehood that there is a new Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma created in 1975 and an older Cherokee Nation with a constitution dated in 1839. There is only one constitutional government of the Cherokee people since 1839 and that simply is Cherokee Nation. The claim of Freedmen citizenship goes back to the 1866 amendment to the 1839 Cherokee Nation Constitution.

The other thing that is clear is that the Cherokee Nation Constitution is not based on race. People of many different ethnic backgrounds, African-Americans, White Americans and Hispanic Americans, have Cherokee ancestors on the Dawes Roll and they are unquestionably entitled to Cherokee Nation citizenship. However, someone will undoubted play the race card in this debate. The issue at hand is what classes of people should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation, and who should make that decision, the courts or the Cherokee people themselves.

To put the Lucy Allen case in perspective, the court acknowledged that Cherokee citizens may decide who are entitled to citizenship. Many Cherokees believed that issue was settled in 1975 with the passage of the Constitution and exclusion of Freedmen. By a 2-1 vote, three people essentially changed the last 30 years of Cherokee Nation Governance. The court reversed itself and changed the way the Cherokee Constitution was interpreted.

The process to decide the issue of Freedmen citizenship is a constitutional amendment at the polls. The constitutional question to determine citizenship and especially whether to exclude Freedmen and Inter-married whites may be placed on the next general election ballot by a referendum petition or by a constitutional question authorized by resolution of the Council. Even the Council is divided on this question. Bill John Baker, Joe Crittenden, Chuck Hoskins, David Thornton Melvina Shotpouch, and Johnny Keener all voted several months to prohibit the Cherokee Nation from contesting a federal lawsuit brought by Freedmen to gain citizenship.

Although many disagree and some agree with the JAT decision to include Freedmen as citizens, I believe everyone understands it is a question reserved to the Cherokee people. Since the JAT ruled the question was not resolved in 1975, I believe the Cherokee people should answer the question once and for all of who should be entitled to Cherokee citizenship and the status of the Freedmen.