The Cherokee Nation and descendants of black slaves once owned by its members are asking a federal court to sort out their longstanding dispute over tribal citizenship rights.
The rare, seven-page request by both parties filed Friday in a Washington federal court follows more than a decade of nasty legal battles between the descendants, known as freedmen, and the Cherokees over whether the freedmen should have citizenship rights in Oklahoma's largest tribe.
Freedmen have long argued that the Treaty of 1866, signed between the U.S. government and the Tahlequah-based Cherokees, gave them and their descendants "all the rights of native Cherokees." There are around 3,000 freedmen descendants today.
"The parties to this action, in the interest of reaching a final resolution of this longstanding dispute, have agreed to jointly petition this court to resolve by summary judgment the core issue in dispute in this action — whether the freedmen possess a right to equal citizenship in the Cherokee Nation under the Treaty of 1866," the filing explains.
Attorneys also included a proposed schedule on when the court might begin accepting documents in the case, suggesting opening motions due by Nov. 29 and oral argument in April 2014.
"This is very important to us; this is our identity, who we are," said Marilyn Vann, president of the Oklahoma City-based Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. "These are our ancestors that came on the Trail of Tears, and to now have people say you're not a part of us, get out, we feel outraged.
"We are looking forward to our day in court," Vann said in an interview Monday.
Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree said Monday that after "years of litigation and legal expenses, it appears that we will finally be able to ask a judge to decide the main issue of this case which is, 'What, if anything, did the Treaty of 1866 grant the freedmen and their descendants?'"
While many white Americans owned black slaves until after the Civil War, so did some Cherokee tribesmen — but the practice generally ended with the 1866 treaty that afforded freed slaves the same rights as native Cherokees.
Leaders of the Cherokee Nation, one of the largest and most influential American tribes, have been trying to change that policy by declaring that the descendants should not be considered Cherokee citizens unless they can show proof of Indian blood.
In 2007, more than three-quarters of Cherokee citizens voted to kick out descendants of freedmen and other non-Indians. The dispute has been in and out of the courts ever since.