Cherokee Nation and Freedmen: A Historical Timeline

Cherokee Freedmen descendants attend the Descendants of Freedmen meeting on Sept. 16 at the Martin Luther King Community Center in Muskogee, Oklahoma. U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan stated that Freedmen have the right to Cherokee Nation citizenship in an Aug. 30 ruling. STACIE GUTHRIE/CHEROKEE PHOENIX

1700s -- Cherokee interaction with slavery dates back to the early 1700s. In the 1730s, a Cherokee delegation meet with British authorities to make an agreement that captured runaway slaves are to be returned to their British owners.

1838 -- As part of the Indian Removal Act (1830) and the Treaty of New Echota (1835), Cherokees are forced from their ancestral homelands to west of the Mississippi. About 16,000 Cherokees are moved west, along with their slaves who trekked with them, on what is now known as the Trail of Tears. Approximately 4,000 Cherokees die during the roundup, placement in concentration camps and trip to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

Sept. 6, 1839 -- The John Ross Party, or Eastern Cherokees, and the Old Settlers and Treaty Party ratify the Cherokee Nation's 1839 Constitution. Article III, Section 5 of the Constitution states "No person who is negro and mulatto parentage, either by the father or mother's side, shall be eligible to hold any office of profit, honor or trust under this Government."

Oct. 28, 1861 -- The Cherokee Council issues "A Declaration by the People of the Cherokee Nation of the Causes Which Have Impelled them to Unite with Those of the Confederate State of America." In it, a statement concerning slavery declares the Cherokee people are tied to the South or Confederacy although there were past complaints about some of the Southern states. The declaration also states that if the U.S. government were to "annul the institution of slavery in the whole of Indian country and make it what they term free territory and after a time a free state" it would allow the government to take Indian land again.

Feb. 21, 1863 -- The Cherokee National Council revokes the Confederate treaty and passes an act freeing slaves among the Cherokee and setting a fine of not less than $1,000 or more than $5,000 against those who held slaves after June 25, 1863.

July 19, 1866 -- A treaty signed by the CN and the U.S. government abolishes slavery in the Cherokee Nation. As a result , the U.S. government gives "all the right of native Cherokee" to freed black slaves, now known as Freedmen, who reside within tribal boundaries.

Nov. 26, 1866 -- "Necessary" changes are made in accordance with the July 19 treaty stating "All native born Cherokee, all Indians, and whites legally members of the Nation by adoption, and all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months from the 19th day of July, 1866, and their descendants, who reside within the limits of the Cherokee Nation, shall be taken and deemed to be, citizens of the Cherokee Nation."

June 10, 1896 -- The Dawes Commission accepts applications for Cherokee citizens, including Freedmen, who apply for citizenship in the Indian nations and enrolls citizens. The commission begins enrolling Cherokee people by determining their blood quantum, primarily through guesswork. Freedmen are placed on a separate roll from the Cherokee roll.

April 26, 1906 -- To make way for Oklahoma statehood, tribal governments are officially terminated.

1971 -- "Blue cards" are issued to Cherokee citizens, including Freedmen. Freedmen then vote in the 1971, 1975 and 1979 tribal elections.

1975 -- The Cherokee people approve a new constitution. Article III of the Constitution states that all Dawes enrollees and their descendants are citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

1983 -- Freedmen are not allowed to vote in a tribal election. Letters are sent to Freedmen citizens to inform them their citizenship has been cancelled due to the tribe now requiring Cherokee citizens to provide a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood card. The Tribal Council passes an act requiring all Cherokee citizens to provide a CDIB card based on the Dawes Rolls for their degree of blood or their ancestor's degree of blood. Since the Dawes Rolls did not list a blood degree for Freedmen, they and their descendants were removed from the rolls.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs meets with tribal official to emphasize that the Cherokee Constitution and the 1866 Treaty grant citizenship to Freedmen and their descendants, and that Freedmen should be allowed to vote.

The tribe's Judicial Appeals Tribunal issues a hold in Lucy Allen (a Freedmen) v. Cherokee Nation Tribal Council meaning that a 1983 tribal law limits Cherokee citizenship to Cherokees, Shawnees and Delawares by blood.

December 22, 1989 -- In the case of R.H. Nero (a Freedmen) v. Cherokee Nation, Nero brought suit in 1984 citing that Freedmen were denied the right to vote and prevented from participating in federal Indian benefits programs. U.S. District Court Judge H. Dale Cook dismisses the claims against the tribe, its officials and United States on basis of sovereign immunity and grants summary judgment in favor of federal officials, relying on doctrine of qualified immunity. The circuit judge concludes that "(1) tribal sovereign immunity barred claims against Cherokee Nation; (2) United States and its agencies were entitled to sovereign immunity; and (3) plaintiffs failed to state claim against tribal or federal officials."

2001 -- The JAT concludes in the case of Riggs v. Ummerteskee, that a 1983 law limiting citizenship Cherokees, Shawnees and Delawares by blood in the CN was constitutional. Riggs claimed the law was unconstitutional because it omitted Freedmen citizenship.

May 24, 2003 - Cherokee citizens remove the requirement of federal approval of any amendments to the tribe's Constitution or a new constitution by a vote, and again, Freedmen descendants are not allowed to vote.

June 2003 -- A group of Cherokee Freedmen contact the BIA to protest the CN's May 24 general election. The group contest that the Treaty of 1866 protects the citizenship rights of "Black Cherokees."

July 26, 2003 -- Cherokee voters approve a new constitution during a runoff election to replace the 1975 Constitution. The BIA does not approve the new constitution because it does not approve the amendment passed by Cherokee voters removing federal approval for amendments. The BIA wants voting rights and the allowance to run for elected offices for Cherokee Freedmen before the agency approves the new constitution. On Aug. 2, the BIA does not challenge the CN's results of the May 24 general election.

2003 -- Cherokee Freedmen leader Marilyn Vann files suit against the Department of Interior. In Vann v. Kempthorne, the Freedmen contend the CN, with approval from then-DOI Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, prevented them from participating in the 2003 tribal elections and sought a court order declaring the 2003 elections invalid. They also want the DOI secretary to not recognize the results of the 2003 election until Freedmen are permitted to vote.

2004 -- Freedmen Lucy Allen files a lawsuit against the Tribal Council, tribal registrar and Registration Committee in tribal court challenging the tribe's authority to strip citizenship of Dawes enrollee descendants who are citizens based on the 1975 Constitution.

2006 -- The JAT rules 2-1 in favor of Lucy Allen's lawsuit. The ruling reverses the 2001 JAT decision on the Riggs v. Ummerteskee. The ruling states the "Cherokee citizenry has the ultimate authority to define tribal citizenship," but "when the 1975 Constitution was adopted it did not limit membership to people who possess Cherokee blood. Instead they extended membership to all the people who were 'citizens' of the Cherokee Nation as listed on the Dawes Commission Rolls."

During a Tribal Council meeting on June 12, the council votes 13-2 to amend the Constitution to require Indian blood for CN citizenship. The amendment will go to a vote of the Cherokee people, but a resolution calling for a special election in the fall fails by a vote of 8-7.

A group of Cherokee citizens begin circulating an initiative petition in June asking CN citizens to support an Indian blood requirement amendment to the Constitution and a special election in the fall of 2006. Circulators of the petition say they have more than 2,000 signatures.

As of July 15, 940 Freedmen are enrolled as CN citizens.

March 3, 2007 -- In a special election, the Tribal Council votes to amend the Constitution to limit citizenship to those with Indian blood. The amendment disenfranchises around 2,800 Cherokee Freedmen.

May 14, 2007, Cherokee Nation District Judge John T. Cripps approved an application for a temporary injunction against the new constitutional amendment approved during the March 3 special election and reinstated the citizenship of the Freedmen.

June 21, 2007 -- A piece of legislation called House Resolution 2824 by U.S. Congresswoman Diane Watson is introduced that could potentially cut off CN's federal funds and ties with the U.S. government if Cherokee Freedmen are not given their rights back for citizenship. Principal Chief Chad Smith's administration argues that due to the CN's sovereignty they could decide "what a Cherokee is."

2008 -- Congressional Black Caucus members try to block a Native American housing assistance bill to prevent the CN from receiving funds until the tribe is "in full compliance with the Treaty of 1866" to recognize Cherokee Freedmen and their descendants as tribal citizens. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama states his support for tribal sovereignty and that "Congress should not get involved in the Cherokee Nation's efforts to disenroll descendants of the tribe's former slaves until after pending court cases are resolved."

2008 -- The U.S. House passes an Indian housing bill previously threatened by efforts to punish the CN's efforts to keep Freedmen descendants from tribal citizenship.

Feb. 3, 2009 -- The CN files a federal lawsuit to resolve the long-standing dispute with Freedmen descendants. The CN asks the U.S. District Court for Northern District of Oklahoma to confirm that "Congress in 1896 unilaterally modified the Treaty of 1866 and nullified Freedmen and their descendants tribal citizenship."

2011 -- A Cherokee judge rules in favor of Freedmen in a citizenship case where in 2007 the CN amended its Constitution to strip Freedmen of tribal citizenship. Judge John T. Cripps rules on Jan. 14 in the case of Nash v. Cherokee Nation Registrar, stating that "descendants of original enrollees of the Dawes Commission designated Cherokee Freedmen, or Cherokee Freedmen-Minor Children...shall have the rights as previously entitled prior to the passage of the aforesaid Constitutional amendment." This new ruling allows approximately 2,800 Freedmen to have their CN citizenship restored while the case is pending.

2011 -- On Aug. 22, a 16-page ruling issued by the CN Supreme Court "reversed and vacated" the decision of the CN District Court regarding Freedmen. The ruling stated that Cherokee people had the right to amend the Constitution and set its own citizenship requirements.

2012 -- The Department of Interior files a counterclaim against the CN for a judgment stating the 1866 Treaty "provided and continues to provide" Cherokee Freedmen descendants with certain rights and privileges that include tribal citizenship. In May, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma grants the tribe's motion to amend its complaint file in 2009.

2014 -- U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan hears oral arguments from CN attorneys and Freedmen attorneys regarding the long-standing Freedmen lawsuit Cherokee Nation v. Raymond Nash. The arguments pertain to whether the Treaty of 1866 between the U.S. and the CN grant citizenship rights to former slaves of CN citizens and their descendants.

Aug. 30, 2017 -- U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan rules that, "the Cherokee Nation can continue to define itself as it sees fit but most do so equally and evenhandedly with respect to native Cherokees and the descendants of Cherokee Freedmen." The official ruling states "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." It also states that 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."

Aug. 31, 2017 -- CN Attorney General Todd Hembree issues a statement that he will not file an appeal on a federal judge's ruling that allows Freedmen CN citizenship rights. He said the "Cherokee Nation respects the rule of the law, and yesterday we began accepting and processing citizenship application from Freedmen descendants. I do not intend to file an appeal."

Sept. 1, 2017 -- The CN Supreme Court orders that upon registration for citizenship, Freedmen descendants "have all the rights and duties of any other native Cherokee, including the right to run for office." CN Registration begins accepting and processing Freedmen descendant applications the same day.