Court tosses complaint filed over Freedmen's eligibility

In this March 9, 2019, photo, Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, speaks at the Martin Luther King Community Center in Muskogee. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX

TAHLEQUAH -- Less than a day into the candidate filing period for the June 5 general election, two eligibility complaints were filed concerning a Freedmen descendant who declared her candidacy for the Tribal Council's open At-Large seat.

The complaints lodged by Cherokee Nation citizen and fellow At-Large candidate Robin Mayes, of Texas, questioned the eligibility of Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, who filed Feb. 1.

"Mayes stipulates that Vann likely meets all requirements except one," a complaint filed with the Election Commission states, "she is not Cherokee by blood as required by the Constitution."

A related lawsuit filed by Mayes with the District Court was dismissed just days after its submission, according to Court Clerk Kristi Moncooyea. The complaint filed with the EC remained pending as of Feb. 8.

"I have no doubt that I have a legal right to run as a candidate for Cherokee Nation Tribal Council," Vann stated in a press release. "The 1866 treaty between the United States and the Cherokee Nation, the 2017 Federal Court order upholding the rights of the Freedmen in the Cherokee Nation v Nash-Vann case, and the subsequent September 2017 Cherokee Nation Supreme Court order Re: Effect of Cherokee Nation v Nash-Vann, all uphold my right�to hold tribal elective office."

Mayes' initial complaint to the EC was filed Feb. 1, the first day of filing. However, since the official five-day contest period did not begin until after filing ended Feb. 4, Mayes resubmitted his paperwork.

"We have it," EC Administrator Marcus Fears said. "He turned one in a little early, then he did turn one in during the contest period."

The complaint window was set to end Feb. 11.

Mayes' complaint, along with previous CN Supreme Court and U.S. District Court opinions related to Freedmen, was forwarded to EC attorney Harvey Chaffin, said Fears.

An Aug. 30, 2017, decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia stated that Freedmen descendants, whose ancestors were once Cherokee-owned slaves, were eligible for CN citizenship based upon the Treaty of 1866 between the U.S. and CN governments. Article 9 of the treaty states that qualifying Freedmen have "all the rights of native Cherokees."

A subsequent CN Supreme Court order states that Freedmen descendants, upon registration as CN citizens, shall have all the rights and duties of any other native Cherokee, including the right to run for office.

Mayes' EC complaint states that Vann "has been led to believe she is eligible to run for elected office by court case SC 17-07, in which Justice John C. Garrett states Freedmen shall have all rights by Cherokee blood ... 'including the right to run for office.'"

"The courts of the Cherokee Nation are wholly without authority to nullify any portion of the constitution that may conflict with federal law," the complaint states. "The Cherokee people voted in 2003 to remove from their constitution language granting over-site of the constitution by the federal government."

CN citizen David Cornsilk, a longtime Freedmen supporter, helped Mayes draft the legal challenge.

"I haven't changed," Cornsilk said. "I'm an absolute, 100% supporter of Freedmen's rights to run for office. But I believe the Constitution has to be amended in order for the 'by blood' language to be taken out. This has been a dangerous legacy decision on my part. So I do want to make it clear that I do support the Freedmen and all adopted classes' right to run for office. But I am a firm believer that the Constitution has to say it."

Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. has described the candidacy challenge as "offensive."

"Both the federal court and Cherokee Nation's Supreme Court held that all Cherokee Freedmen descendants are equal and full citizens under the law," he said. "The anti-Freedmen proponents of this lawsuit, if successful, would force Cherokee citizens of Freedmen descent to essentially start over in their effort to secure civil rights in the Cherokee Nation."

Per an election code change in 2019, in order to file the EC complaint, Mayes was required to be a candidate in the at-large race. He and Vann filed along with Wallace Ryan Craig, Mary-Charlotte Grayson, Kyle Haskins, Shawna Johnson, Johnny Jack Kidwell and Matthew B. Scraper.

The incumbent, Mary Baker Shaw, announced Jan. 29 that she would not run for reelection, "a tough decision because it's hard to walk away from a job you love."

"The at-large tribal council member's role is not one to be taken lightly," she penned on Facebook, "and whoever holds the honor of this office must always remember that they represent the largest and most diverse constituency in our tribe."

The general election will be held June 5. If needed, a runoff election will be held July 24.

For election information, visit https://election.cherokee.org, call 918-458-5899 or 1-800-353-2895, fax 918-458-6101 or email election-commission@cherokee.org.