OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The attorney general of the Cherokee Nation agreed to a temporary injunction in tribal court Monday that allows descendants of the tribe's slaves to maintain their citizenship while they appeal the constitutionality of an election that rescinded their tribal membership.
The order applies only to appeals made by the descendants, commonly known as freedmen, in tribal court, and not to ongoing appeals being made in federal court in Washington, D.C.
``I think we made a major step toward restoring their full citizenship rights,'' said Nathan Young III of Tahlequah, the attorney for the freedmen in the tribal court case. ``I think it's the first step.''
But Jon Velie, the attorney for the freedmen in the federal case, called the tribal court's action ``a temporary fix'' and said the tribe was reacting to recent filings by the freedmen in the federal case. In that case on Monday, U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. denied a motion by the tribe to dismiss the case or move jurisdiction of it to an Oklahoma federal court.
Young said the order by Cherokee District Court Judge John Cripps means the freedmen will be able to vote in the tribe's June 23 election, in which current Chief Chad Smith is running for another term. The Tahlequah-based Cherokee Nation is the largest American Indian tribe in the United States, with about 250,000 members.
Cherokee Nation Attorney General Diane Hammons said she agreed to Cripps' order because while voters ``have a right to have their determination implemented, those individuals who lost their citizenship status as a result of that election also have the right to have our Cherokee Nation courts consider the legality of the Amendment.''
By a 3-to-1 margin, more than 8,700 Cherokee voters approved a constitutional amendment March 3 that would remove about 2,800 freedmen descendants from the tribe's rolls _ and therefore eliminate their eligibility for medical and other services provided by the tribe.
The amendment would limit tribal membership to descendants of a Cherokee, Delaware or Shawnee Indian listed on the Dawes Commission's rolls from more than 100 years ago.
Cripps' order tells the tribe to ``immediately reinstate to full citizenship within the Cherokee Nation the Plaintiffs and all similarly situated persons, commonly known as 'Cherokee Freedmen.'''
``For decades our people understood that you have to be Indian to be in our Indian tribe,'' Smith said. ``I think the will of the people is very clear. I understand, however, that the rights of citizenship should be taken very seriously, and we take our court's orders very seriously. We will abide by the order and restore citizenship while the case is pending.''
Marilyn Vann, the president of the Oklahoma City-based Descendants of Freedmen of Five Civilized Tribes and the lead plaintiff in the federal case, called the tribe's acceptance of the tribal court's injunction ``a thinly veiled attempt to legitimize the upcoming election. The Attorney General and the Principal Chief stated that the election was valid. This is an act to take the heat off the Tribe so they can expel the Freedmen after Chad Smith gets re-elected.''
After the March election, freedmen had 90 days in which to appeal their removal from the tribe. Young was appointed last week to represent 270 people who had filed such appeals. He filed his request for the injunction Monday.
``My main concern is that they at least have the right to participate in this election,'' Young said. ``It's not politically popular to do what I did, but it's the right thing to do. I believe in their cause and the rightfulness of their belonging.''
In the federal case, six freedmen asked Kennedy on May 8 to stop the tribe and federal authorities from implementing the results of the election that revoked their tribal citizenship.
The request accuses the tribe of violating provisions of the Treaty of 1866, in which the tribe freed its slaves and guaranteed them and their descendants full citizenship rights, as well as the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. The freedmen asked that the government be barred from recognizing Cherokee elections and distributing federal money to the tribe until tribal officials restore their citizenship rights.
Cherokee tribal spokesman Mike Miller said it is the tribe's stance that tribal court is the proper venue for decisions to be made regarding Cherokee citizenship. He said the tribe has not yet filed a reply in the federal case.
The tribal court system ``has been very fair on this issue,'' Miller said, noting that the tribe is paying for Young's services for those freedmen who have appealed in tribal court.
``We know this is a serious issue, and we wanted to make sure that their interests were adequately represented in tribal court,'' Miller said.
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