Black Cherokees Regain Tribal Citizenship

Freedmen will be allowed to vote in upcoming tribal elections.

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Freedmen rallied supporters in March. (Indiancountry.com)

The Cherokee Nation citizenship of some 2,800 African Americans known as freedmen has been regained through an agreement made in federal court between the country's second-largest Indian tribe and its black members.

The formerly ousted group is composed of descendants of slaves once owned by wealthy Indians. After the Civil War, the Cherokees signed a treaty freeing them and granting them full membership in the tribe. Then, in 2007, the nation stripped freedmen of their citizenship and suffrage rights, saying that bloodline determined citizenship.

The freedman responded with suits against the Cherokee tribe and the federal government to guarantee their tribal rights, including the right to vote and other benefits.

But now, "We've agreed to everything," freedmen attorney Jonathan Velie said. "We've agreed upon an order between the Cherokee freedmen, Cherokee Nation, the [federal] government ... to essentially reinstate the citizens into the Cherokee Nation so that they may vote equally with fellow Cherokee citizens."

The agreement was reached as a preliminary hearing was held in federal court in Washington, D.C., to decide whether the Sept. 24 election for principal chief of the 300,000-member Cherokee tribe could proceed without freedmen votes.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs had threatened not to recognize Saturday's election for principal chief after the Cherokee Supreme Court ruled last month that the tribe had the right to change the constitution regarding citizenship. The Department of Housing and Urban Development also withheld $33 million in disbursement.

It's unfortunate that it took these threats from the government to prod the Cherokees to recognize people whose ancestors were held as slaves by the tribe and who have long identified as members. As freedman Willadine Johnson said, "This is the way it always should have been." 

Read more at Forbes and the Kansas City Star.

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