Freedmen seek injunction to halt Cherokees’ funding
By Donna Hales
Muskogee Phoenix Staff Writer
Six Cherokee Freedmen have filed for an injunction to halt federal funding to the Cherokees and stop recognizing any Cherokee election.
The filing in the federal court for the District of Columbia also asks the court to prohibit Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and the Department of Interior from recognizing the government-to-government relationship with the Cherokee Nation until the Nation restores Freedmen to full citizenship.
The Freedmen request the court to prohibit the upcoming June 23 election of Cherokee officials until the Freedmen can vote and run for office pursuant to the terms of the Treaty of 1866.
That treaty states the Freedmen are granted “all the rights of native Cherokees” and that Cherokee Nation shall enact no law “inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States, or laws of Congress, or existing treaty stipulations with the United States.”
“I just think this is a suit that’s not winnable (for the Cherokee Nation) on the issues at hand,” Cherokee Nation Councilor Linda O’Leary, chair of the Executive and Finance Committee, said Wednesday.
“When we’re talking about civil liberties, then we are on the losing end of the stick here.”
O’Leary said Principal Chief Chad Smith was the main supporter of the special election to disenfranchise Freedmen.
“Chad did this for political reasons to keep the Freedmen from voting (in the upcoming election) — and the Cherokee Nation will have to spend millions of dollars in legal funds,” O’Leary said.
Cherokee Nation spokesman Mike Miller said the Cherokee Nation is being sued.
“It’s not our choice whether we spend money to defend ourselves or not,” Miller said. “It was not a lawsuit we filed, but a lawsuit filed against us.”
Freedmen attorney Jon Velie said less than 3 percent of the Cherokee Nation voted to oust the Freedmen in a March 3 election.
Miller said the vote on the Freedmen came after more than 3,000 Cherokee people signed a petition to bring it about. O’Leary said that although the tribe’s highest court said the petition was legal, some justices did not agree.
Miller said the court ruled the petition legal and “we don’t get to pick and choose which court decisions we agree with. We abide by them all.”
The Freedmen not being allowed to vote in the Cherokee Nation election was a violation of the Treaty of 1866 and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, Velie said.
“The Court (Washington, D.C.) also held that the Cherokee Nation’s denial of the Freedmen’s right to vote constituted a ‘badge of slavery.’” Velie said. “Badges of slavery are prohibited under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The current motion seeks relief for further violations of the Treaty and 13th Amendment by expelling the Freedmen during the appeal.”
Marilyn Vann, lead plaintiff and elected leader of the Freedmen Band of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, said it is her duty to stand up for her ancestors who walked and died on the Trail of Tears and the future generations of Cherokees as “we fight for the treaty rights negotiated by our leaders in 1866.
“I will not stand by and watch as others attempt to strip me of who I am,” Vann said.
Freedmen began receiving letters March 21, stating their citizenship status had been changed following the March 3 election, the filing states.
A court exhibit, a letter from the Cherokee Nation to Freedmen plaintiff Charlene White, states “because of the Constitutional Amendment, you are no longer eligible to receive medical benefits from the Cherokee Nation.”
The filing claims unless restrained by the federal defendants or the court, the Cherokee Nation will deny all Cherokee Freedmen their right to vote or run for office in the scheduled June 23 tribal election.
The court earlier refused to stop the special March 3 election in which the Freedmen were disenfranchised, However, the court noted that even assuming that the outcome the Freedmen feared came to pass, “the Freedmen have a remedy if the election results in the deprivation of their constitutional rights.”
That outcome has come to pass, the latest filing states. Federal defendants “are doing absolutely nothing to protect the rights of plaintiffs and other Freedmen.”
Court appoints attorney for Freedmen in lawsuit
A Tahlequah attorney was appointed to represent a class of 270 Freedmen appealing their disenfranchisement as Cherokee citizens.
“I haven’t hidden my support for the Freedmen,” Nate Young III said after being appointed by the Cherokee Nation District Court. “I voted ‘no’ on the amendment. I plan to file my petition Friday before the close for request for absentee ballots.”
Young is seeking a temporary injunction to halt the June elections.
He said he will be asking the court:
• Not to disenroll the Freedmen before a fair hearing on the merits of the case.
• And to not disenroll them from receiving benefits before such a hearing.
Young said the case probably will end up before the Cherokee Supreme Court.