Canceled Forum Renews Cherokee Freedmen Controversy

Friday, April 1st 2011, 9:20 pm
By: News On 6

Emily Baucum, News On 6

MUSKOGEE, Oklahoma -- There are new developments in an ongoing legal war between the Cherokee Nation and descendants of a group called the Freedmen.

The latest battleground: Bacone College, the nation's first college serving American Indians.

The fight goes back several years.  It's an issue the college thought students should learn more about, so professors organized a forum to share both sides.  A sudden cancellation just days before the event sparked protest.

Kenneth Payton has told the story hundreds of times.

"They never got any benefit or any perks from being Native American, which they should," Payton said.

Payton and his fellow protesters say they're descendants of the Freedmen, African American slaves owned by the Cherokees.

"We're not asking for anything more than our rights under the 1866 Treaty," Marilyn Vann, a Freedmen descendant, said.

That treaty gave Freedmen and their descendants rights as citizens of the Cherokee Nation.  In 2007, Cherokees voted to kick Freedmen descendants out of the tribe.

After the U.S. Congress got involved, the Cherokees took the issue of Freedmen citizenship to federal court where it's remained in limbo ever since.

"We want a forum where people can hear both the tribe's side and the Freedmen's side," Vann said.

"This is an academic institution and it's important to have the free sharing of ideas,"  Eugene Blankenship, with Bacone College, said.

Bacone College professors scheduled a forum for Thursday that would have given equal time to both sides.  The college had asked Vann to represent the Freedmen.

 "Our staff did not know she was part of the ongoing litigation," Blankenship said.

The college says professors later asked Vann to find a more neutral speaker and when she couldn't find one, the forum was canceled.

"We did not want to have a one-sided argument," Blankenship said.

"That is not what I was told at all. No ma'am," Vann said.  "I was told it had been vetoed by the board because there was ongoing litigation."

Professors say the forum will be rescheduled in a few months, when neutral speakers are available.  In the meantime, the college allowed another protest to be held on campus, but the Freedmen descendants feel their struggle's once again being ignored.

"The Freedmen people, we have no casinos. We only have the truth," Vann said.

 Kenneth Payton says until he sees progress, he'll keep the fight alive.

"'Til I die," he said.  "Nobody in my family has received a brown sack or anything."

Cherokee businesses' spokesman Mike Miller's a member of the Bacone College board of trustees. 

The protesters believe he pressured the school into canceling the forum.  Miller says he was not involved in the decision and believes the issue should be discussed on campus.