Hembree won’t appeal federal Freedmen ruling
Cherokee Freedmen descendants protest on a roadside near the Bureau of Indian Affairs office on Sept. 2, 2013, in Muskogee, Oklahoma. They were protesting an Aug. 22, 2013, Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruling that voided their CN citizenship. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee Freedmen attorney Jon Velie answers questions at a 2007 Freedmen rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Velie, who argued the Freedmen’s case in U.S. District Court, says the Aug. 30 ruling is “a win for Native Americans” as the federal courts have enforced both treaty rights of citizenship while maintaining tribes’ and elected officials’ rights to determine citizenship and self-determination. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Attorney General Todd Hembree issued a statement today saying he does not intend to appeal a federal judge’s ruling on Aug. 30 that gives Cherokee Freedmen citizenship rights into the Cherokee Nation.
“Yesterday, a Federal Court issued a long-awaited ruling determining the rights and interests of Cherokee Freedmen descendants. The Court ruled that Freedmen descendants have the right to citizenship within the Cherokee Nation,” he said regarding the case Cherokee Nation v. Nash. “The Cherokee Nation respects the rule of law, and yesterday we began accepting and processing citizenship applications from Freedmen descendants. I do not intend to file an appeal.”
Hembree said the issues in the case first arose nearly 40 years ago, and he was “grateful” to finally have a ruling on the core legal issues that the CN presented to Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan in 2014.
“It was always my goal to present these arguments before the Court and get a final decision that was binding on all parties,” he said.
Hembree said he does not see the U.S. District Court’s ruling as a defeat.
“As the Attorney General, I see this as an opportunity to resolve the Freedmen citizenship issue and allow the Cherokee Nation to move beyond this dispute. My office will work tirelessly to thoroughly review this decision and its legal ramifications, and will move forward in a way that best serves the interests of the Cherokee Nation and its citizens, including Freedmen descendants,” he said.
In his ruling, Hogan wrote that “the Cherokee Nation can continue to define itself as it sees fit but must do so equally and evenhandedly with respect to native Cherokees and the descendants of Cherokee Freedmen.”
The ruling also states that “the paramount question” in the case is whether Article 9 of the 1866 Treaty between the U.S. and CN allowed qualifying Freedmen “all the rights of native Cherokees.”
CN v. Nash was last argued in May 2014. The CN contended that Article 9 never offered qualifying Freedmen and their descendants “an enduring right to citizenship, or any right to citizenship.” The CN argued that the Nation’s Constitution, not the 1866 Treaty, bestowed citizenship rights upon the Freedmen. In 2007, CN voters amended the CN Constitution to limit citizenship to Dawes Roll descendants with Indian blood, effectively terminating citizenship for Freedmen and intermarried whites.
“The Cherokee Nation is mistaken to treat freedmen’s right to citizenship as being tethered to the Cherokee Nation Constitution when, in fact, that right is tethered to the rights of native Cherokees. Furthermore, the freedmen’s right to citizenship does not exist solely under the Cherokee Nation Constitution and therefore cannot be extinguished solely by amending that Constitution,” states Hogan’s ruling. “The Cherokee Nation’s sovereign right to determine its membership is no less now, as a result of this (Aug. 30) decision, than it was after the Nation executed the 1866 Treaty. The Cherokee Nation concedes that its power to determine tribal membership can be limited by treaty. In accordance with Article 9 of the 1866 Treaty, the Cherokee Freedmen have a present right to citizenship in the Cherokee Nation that is coextensive with the rights of Native Cherokees.”
Jon Velie, the attorney who argued the Freedmen’s case in U.S. District Court, said the ruling is “a win for Native Americans” as the federal courts have enforced both treaty rights of citizenship while maintaining tribes’ and elected officials’ rights to determine citizenship and self-determination.
“We are obviously excited by the decision in court yesterday and very happy with the reasoning with the Cherokee Nation (not to appeal). The Freedmen understand this issue has been divisive and are very much looking forward healing within the tribe and being part of some of the most amazing people in the world,” Velie said. “This is a wonderful victory for the Freedmen who regained their identities as equal citizens in their Nation.”