TAHLEQUAH – In a first for the Cherokee Nation, a citizen of Freedmen descent was confirmed to a government commission, marking a “history making” move for the tribe, said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. 

Marilyn Vann, of Oklahoma City, was appointed by the chief, then confirmed Sept. 13 by the Tribal Council as a member of the CN Environmental Protection Commission.

“She’s an engineer by trade with a long resume of federal government service, so she’s both highly qualified and really a trailblazer,” Hoskin said. “I think it is good for the Nation to reach out everywhere to find talent for these kind of appointments.”

Vann is the founding president of Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, an organization that for nearly 20 years has pushed back against racial discrimination against Freedmen descendants.

“It’s very good that qualifying persons in the Cherokee Nation – members of the tribe – should be able to be appointed to different positions on boards, commissions, eventually Cabinet positions,” Vann said. “I plan to do the duties that have been entrusted to me.”

Established under the CN Environmental Code, the five-member commission oversees the tribe’s environmental programs and recommends code changes to the Tribal Council.

“I am a person who is educated and who has worked as an engineer,” the now-retired Vann said. “I feel like I can bring some technical expertise and knowledge to this commission. I know there were a few people on social media who criticized my nomination and indicated that I wasn’t qualified. But I dare say they have not looked at my resume.”

Vann graduated with distinction from the University of Oklahoma, earning an engineering degree. She went on to work as a team-lead engineer with the U.S. Treasury Department for more than three decades.

In June, she ran for the tribe’s open At-Large Tribal Council seat, placing third in a field of eight candidates. 

During Vann’s run, a fellow candidate challenged her eligibility, claiming that she “is not Cherokee by blood as required by the Constitution.” Shortly thereafter, at the request of the CN Attorney General’s Office, the CN Supreme Court unanimously ruled that “by blood” language is void and should be removed from the tribe’s laws, including provisions within the tribal Constitution. That decision was in direct response to the 2017 federal Cherokee Nation v. Nash case that determined descendants of former Cherokee-owned slaves have full rights as CN citizens, including the right to run for elected office, based on the Treaty of 1866.

The road to tribal citizenship has been paved with highs and lows for Vann and other Freedmen descendants over the past two decades. She was initially denied citizenship in 2001. It wasn’t until 2006 that she became a tribal citizen when the CN Supreme Court ruled Freedmen descendants were entitled to enroll. The next year, CN voters amended the Constitution to limit citizenship to people who were Indian “by blood,” which removed eligibility for citizenship from Freedmen and intermarried whites.

“I remember in 2011, we had a judge, he said that the Freedmen had treaty rights,” said Vann, who was vested in the various legal proceedings. “Then, a few months later, you have those other judges, they reversed that. So sometimes there’s been good things and then sometimes there have been other things.”

Ultimately, in 2017, a federal court concluded that the CN was bound by the Treaty of 1866 to recognize descendants of Cherokee Freedmen as full citizens.