Native Village
Youth and Education news
 Volume 1, February 2011

Tribal ruling raises dispute over slaves owned by Indians
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Condensed by Native Village

Oklahoma: A Cherokee Nation tribal court has ruled that the Cherokee "Freedmen" cannot be excluded from tribal membership. This includes Freedmen who are not blood descendents.

In 1831, the U.S. forced the Cherokee to walk from their Southeast homelands to Oklahoma. This was known as the "Trail of Tears." Many Cherokee had been plantation owners, and they brought their African-American slaves with them.

After the Civil War, the U.S. signed another treaty with the Cherokee. That treaty required the Cherokee to include their former slaves and descendants as tribal members.  Some ex-slaves had Cherokee blood because plantation owners fathered children with slave women. Some had no Indian blood at all. 

In 2007, the Cherokee tribe passed a new Constitutional Amendment. That Amendment revoked tribal memberships for slave descendants unable to prove Cherokee blood. More than 2,800 Freedmen descendants were affected.

The recent tribal court ruling makes that Amendment invalid. But the Cherokee Nation's attorney disagrees.

"We have received the (tribal court) decision with which we respectfully disagree," said Diane Hammons. She said the tribe might appeal.

The case is being heard separately in a U.S. Federal court.

Marilyn Vann is a Cherokee Freedmen and leads an organization that represents their descendents. She said the recent tribal court decision was a positive step, but action in U.S. Federal court was more important.

"This shows that some in the Cherokee Nation want to rule by law instead of inciting base interest for their own political gain," Vann said.

She added that Cherokee tribal members didn't want slave descendents to vote on certain issues. This includes how the millions of dollars of casino profits are distributed among tribal members. 

"It's about control of the money," Vann said. "They have casinos and hundreds of millions of dollars they don't have to pay taxes on. They don't want to have to account for what they spend that money on."

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