Black Cherokee lose lawsuit but tribal citizen issue unsettled

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 01, 2011 8:53 PM
Black Cherokee lose lawsuit but tribal citizen issue unsettled

By Steve Olafson

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - An attorney for African-Americans in the Cherokee Indian tribe said on Saturday the legal campaign to stop the tribe from purging its citizenship rolls of non-Indians will continue despite the dismissal of a lawsuit against the tribe.

The lawsuit, filed in 2003, was dismissed on Friday by a federal judge, who said the sovereign rights of the tribe gave it immunity from being sued.

"We took a blow, but we're not gutted," said Jon Velie, attorney for the so-called freedmen, the descendants of black slaves owned by Cherokees in the pre-Civil War era.

Ironically, the legal battle over tribal citizenship remains alive in court because of another lawsuit initiated by the tribe.

Because the Cherokee Nation is the plaintiff in this lawsuit, it effectively waived the sovereign immunity claim that was used to stop the other lawsuit, Velie said.

This lawsuit, originally filed in Tulsa, had been transferred to Washington, D.C., but Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. sent it back to Oklahoma when he dismissed the other freedmen lawsuit on Friday.

Cherokee leaders contend in this lawsuit that the Treaty of 1866, which made newly freed Cherokee-held slaves citizens of the tribe, does not prevent it from amending its constitution to require proof of an Indian blood link to be a citizen, and thus receive benefits such as health care, education aid and job-preference to work in the tribe's casinos.

The United States government has supported the freedmen in the citizenship fight.

After being kicked out of the tribe in August after a ruling by the Cherokee Supreme Court, about 2,800 freedmen had their citizenships rights temporarily restored in an out-of-court agreement that enabled them to vote in an election for tribal chief.

Voting was extended because of the citizenship fight and will conclude on October 8.

The freedmen's citizenship, meanwhile, will remain intact while the tribe's lawsuit against the freedman continues, according to Diane Hammons, the Cherokee attorney general.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)