Friday, March 16, 2012

Attorney Jon Velie, Cherokee Freedmen attorney, Fighting for the Individual Indian's Rights

Attorneys litigating the ongoing Cherokee Freedmen case spoke during a law symposium held March 1 at the University of Oklahoma College of Law in Norman, Okla.

Freedmen attorney Jon Velie spoke first and said along with representing the Freedmen he is championing individual Indian rights. Those rights have come in direct conflict with sovereign tribes as they gain more power “than they’ve ever had,” he said. OP: The question is WHY isn't the Native American Rights Fund helping the individual Indian with their civil rights struggles against CORRUPT tribal councils?

He said the question he has been asking is how is that power being used and how is that power affecting individual Indian people’s rights? OP: Many councils have abused their power and ignored the will of their people

Velie explained to the audience who the Cherokee Freedmen are and why they have been in litigation with the CN. He said the Freedmen are Cherokee Indians of African descent, are descendant’s of slaves “that were held by Cherokee masters” and were part of the slave industry that was regulated by the CN.
There are likely 25,000 Cherokee Freedmen descendants today. About 2,800 are officially registered with the CN, and the rest “are on the outside looking in,” he said.

“We have the Cherokee Nation in probably its most lucrative time period, and we have people really suffering on the financial side who do not get to participate in that,” Velie said. “And that’s just on the benefits side. More of them are frustrated by the loss of their identity – being able to be Cherokee.” OP: Chad Smith could fly in a private jet, yet he successfully got rid of his slave descendents.

Velie also explained what the CN is today, and said it is the largest or second largest tribe in the country comprised of ethnic Cherokees, Shawnees and Delawares. He added because the CN chronicled its history better than other tribes it is known that the Cherokee Freedmen once held political power in the tribe including positions on the Tribal Council.

“We see these people have been very important and have been a part of this tribe for a long time,” he said.

Cherokee Freedmen derived their rights from the 1866 Treaty between the CN and the United States following the Civil War, Velie said. The CN had sided with the Confederacy and the treaty allowed the CN to rejoin the union following the war with some stipulations, which included giving rights of Cherokee citizens to former slaves and Freedmen living within the CN.

In 2003, a group of Cherokee Freedmen sued the CN to regain those rights, which they lost in 1983. Even though the U.S. had stated the 1866 Treaty was in “full force and effect” when it came to the rights of Freedmen citizens, Freedmen were not allowed to vote in the 2003 CN election.
Velie said the Freedmen sued because they were denied the right to vote, and after initially taking the position that it would not recognize the 2003 election, the federal government reversed its decision.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was paid nearly $120,000 by Cherokee Nation Enterprises (now Cherokee Nation Businesses) to lobby on the tribe’s behalf, influenced the U.S. government’s reversal, Velie said.

Vann v. Norton was the Freedmen lawsuit filed in 2003, but the defendant’s name has changed over the years as the Secretary of the Interior’s name has changed. Last November, a federal judge dismissed the eight-year-old case, at the time called Vann et al v. Salazar, and transferred the last remaining lawsuit involving the Freedmen, Cherokee Nation v. Nash, back to the U.S. District Court in Tulsa where it waits to be heard.

In 2006, Freedmen gained back their citizenship and the right to vote following a Cherokee Judicial Appeals Tribunal ruling in Allen v. CN Registrar. However, the following year, Cherokee voters, in a special election, voted to amend the tribe’s 2003 Constitution and the Freedmen lost their citizenship rights again. The amendment required CN citizens to have an ancestor with Indian blood on the Dawes Roll. Many Freedmen did not meet this requirement.

Velie explained the federal government never approved the 2003 CN Constitution that was amended in 2007 to prevent Freedmen citizenship.

Through a May 2007 court injunction, about 2,800 Freedmen currently have citizenship and voting rights while they wait for the Nash case to be heard.

The Nash case involves five random Cherokee Freedmen and the Secretary of the Interior who have been sued by the CN. Velie is representing the Freedmen involved.

Velie said it “preposterous” that an Indian nation is suing its own citizens in federal court for standing up for its rights.

He added the CN’s position in the Nash case under the leadership of Principal Chief Chad Smith was “very dangerous” because the tribe’s attorneys were prepared to argue the 1866 Treaty was “abrogated” or repealed by the U.S. If that is so, then the other components of the treaty – the re-establishment of government to relations between the U.S. and CN and the establishment of tribe’s current boundaries are also abrogated.

“It’s not just dangerous for the Cherokee Nation but also dangerous for all Indian tribes because treaties sit as this relationship between nations,” he said. “A nation without a treaty has less power than a nation with a treaty, and you don’t see tribes argue against treaties very often.”

However, if the Cherokee Freedmen win the case it could have implications for all Five Civilized Tribes that includes the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee Creek and Seminole Nations because those tribes all had slaves and subsequently their Freedmen were given citizenship rights in 1866, Velie said. Each of the five tribes also has a Freedmen roll as part of their Dawes Roll.

Though the Redbird case of 1906 gave the five tribes the right to determine their tribal citizenship, it did not allow the tribes to ignore treaties that established citizenship rights for its Freedmen members, he said.

Velie added time and time again in the late 1800s and early 1900s the courts reaffirmed the Freedmen’s civil rights, yet Freedmen are again being forced to return to court to fight for their rights.

He said the questions in court could be: should a tribe have a right to determine its own citizenship and what gives an individual election official, a temporary elected official, the right to take away the birthright of another individual Indian?

“It’s something that should be thought of by people that govern Indian tribes. Think about this membership thing. Do we really want to have the absolute right to kick our own people out of our own nations?”

OP: Read this article on Tribal Citizenship:

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