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“It’s definitely a watershed victory,” Court rules that freedmen are members of Cherokee Nation

OKLAHOMA CITY - More than a decade ago, Marilyn Vann applied for a tribal membership with the Cherokee Nation.

Looking back on her family's history, she didn't think it would be problem since she is a decedent of freedman slaves that belonged to the Cherokee Nation.

Once she was denied tribal membership, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

“We fought on the courts. We fought on the picket lines. The reason that this is important is that this is who we are,” she said.

The Treaty of 1866 said all freedmen will have the same rights as native Cherokees.

However, Cherokee Nation voters amended their constitution in 2007 to limit Cherokee citizenship to people who could prove they were Cherokee "by blood."

“Our folks were brought on the Trail of Tears, carried baggage to help the rest of the tribes survive,” Vann said.

Jon Velie, an attorney on the case, said the move by voters was a direct violation of a more than 150-year-old treaty.

“I've been in this lawsuit for the last 14 years. We got the decision yesterday that affirmed our position that the Treaty of 1866 is in full force and effect,” Velie said.

This week, a U.S. District Court sided against the Cherokee Nation.

The judge ruled the rights of Cherokee freedmen are tied to the rights of native Cherokees.

The only way the judge said to change that is either extinguishing native Cherokees their rights to citizenship or amending the treaties.

“It's definitely a watershed victory. It's been called the most significant civil rights case of the century,” Velie said.

Vann said this is good news for Cherokee freedmen.

Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree issued the following statement in the ruling of Cherokee Nation v. Nash, et. al in the U.S District Court for Washington D.C.:

“Yesterday, a Federal Court issued a long awaited ruling determining the rights and interests of Cherokee Freedmen descendants. The Court ruled that Freedmen descendants have the right to citizenship within the Cherokee Nation.

The issues in this case first arose nearly 40 years ago, and I am grateful to finally have a ruling on the core legal issues that we presented to Judge Hogan in 2014. It was always my goal to present these arguments before the Court and get a final decision that was binding on all parties.

The Cherokee Nation respects the rule of law, and yesterday we began accepting and processing citizenship applications from Freedmen descendants. I do not intend to file an appeal.

While the U.S. District Court ruled against the Cherokee Nation, I do not see it as a defeat. As the Attorney General, I see this as an opportunity to resolve the Freedmen citizenship issue and allow the Cherokee Nation to move beyond this dispute. My office will work tirelessly to thoroughly review this decision and its legal ramifications, and will move forward in a way that best serves the interests of the Cherokee Nation and its citizens, including Freedmen descendants.”