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Freedmen discussed at Federal Bar Association meeting

OKLAHOMA CITY – Cherokee Chief Chad Smith wonders why the push to preserve tribal sovereignty by removing the descendants of freed slaves from his tribe was regarded as immoral at a Federal Bar Association meeting Sept. 10.

“We certainly want to be included in the fabric of this United States, but we always maintained that we are domestic dependent nations. The idea is why something is wrong when a tribe wants to be a tribe of Indians.”

Smith made the comments to around 150 onlookers at a discussion on the issue that included Harvard University law scholar Charles Ogletree, and Oklahoma Western Federal District Judge Vicki Miles LaGrange as moderator.

Ogletree and Smith each made 10 minute presentations summarizing viewpoints on the controversial issue. Panelists then fielded questions that went 20 minutes beyond the session’s scheduled time.

The discussion centered on the Cherokee Nation’s push to remove freedmen descendants from its rolls in March 2007. The freedmen ascertain that removal violates an 1866 treaty and has taken their case to federal court. No decision has been made on the federal level.

Meanwhile, Ogletree called the freedmen issue a “moral dilemma” and not one entirely of tribal sovereignty, while Smith outlined a history of case law precedent preserving the tribal right to define who qualifies for citizenship.

While LaGrange stressed that the hour-long session was not a debate, Ogletree and Smith called it that and a controversy during the course of the discussion.

Ogletree said the issue could be a “teachable moment” for both sides and that a unified Cherokee Nation could emerge during a presidential administration that bespoke of racial diversity. He said if the Cherokees breach the Treaty of 1866 with the federal government regarding the freedmen, the tribe will walk in the footsteps of an entity which has violated innumerable treaties with Native peoples.

Furthermore, a successful bid to remove the 1,500 registered freedmen descendants from Cherokee rolls could reap unwanted repercussions on other tribes by ignoring treaties at will, Ogletree said.

“This may be a dangerous precedent. I’m certain that this won’t happen, though. I’m an optimist.”

Smith countered that the tribe voted to remove the freedmen after passing a referendum petition according to its tribal constitution in March 2007; about 10,000 voters in the 250,000-member tribe voted by a 70 percent margin to change the constitutional requirements for citizenship. He added that once the “emotional” aspects of the case were put aside, tribes had a right to self-governance. The tribe requires linear blood descent from an enrollee on the 1906 Dawes Rolls, Smith said.

“The question is, can you meet citizenship requirements to be a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Tribes still possess these aspects of sovereignty.”

Smith said freedmen were given equal treatment in the tribe historically, specifically during land allotment and land payments that other citizens of the era received.

He added that any attempts by federal legislators to withdraw funding if the tribe barred freedmen descendants from citizenship also portended to a dangerous precedent.

HB 2721, sponsored by Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., proposes funding removal if the tribe will not honor the Treaty of 1866 and severs ties with the federal government. The bill is still in Congress.

The Cherokees showed a five-minute video where tribal members said they relied on health, housing and other forms of federal funding for assistance.

Onlookers took varied viewpoints. During the open microphone period, Gloria Walker, who said she was once a consultant to the Cherokees, is concerned that black people did not fully understand the tenets of tribal sovereignty. Walker said the nation’s second largest tribe was holding other tribes hostage by their freedmen stance, specifically when the Cherokees’ position put a hold on federal Indian funding bills.

“We need to be realistic. Cherokee Nation sometimes does not address the concerns of other Indian tribes.”

She called for an open discourse between the Cherokee Nation and other tribes in order to merit the effects its freedmen position has on other Indian nations.

Freedmen attorney Jon Velie called the issue complicated and difficult, but solvable.

“This is a case about treaty rights, the freedmen are entitled to citizenship under a treaty. The abrogation of treaties is a dangerous precedent that will affect all of Indian country.”