A group of Cherokee freedmen descendants gathered June 4 to protest. They objected to both the delay in getting their tribal citizenship in an American Indian tribe and also that tribe's leader being named as Red Earth Ambassador of the year.
The protest capped off the 22nd annual Sovereignty Symposium at the Skirvin Hilton Hotel. About 15 freedmen advocates participated, carrying signs that decried the Red Earth honor and asking for full treaty enactment that would allow complete Cherokee freedmen membership.
Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendents of Freedmen's Association, said the groups' efforts are a part of a continuing endeavor to rally support for their cause. Keeping the issue relevant assures that sufficient consideration is given to the tribal membership matter, the Oklahoma City resident said.
"We are calling for tribes, especially the Cherokee Nation, to respect out civil rights," Vann said. "We have not gone away, and we will not quit."
DESCENDANTS OF FREED SLAVES
Freedmen are the descendants of freed slaves who intermarried into the Five Civilized Tribes before, during and after the Civil War.
The protest was an unscheduled addition of the two-day Sovereignty Symposium, and annual event sponsored by the Oklahoma Supreme Court that highlights American Indian issues. "Land, Wind and Water" tackled subjects particular to Indian country like child welfare, land-into-trust and Indian gambling.
Freedmen organizers said the protest was appropriate to the venue.
"Chief (Chad) Smith has been very divisive on the campaign against the freedmen people, when we have a treaty right to be in the tribe," Vann said. "His actions do not speak on furthering tribal issues when this has divided his tribe."
She urged freedmen and those who support the group to contact the Red Earth board, which sponsors the Red Earth ambassadorship, to voice their dissatisfaction that Smith was honored. He was elected the Red Earth Ambassador by nomination.
The Cherokee chief was attending a symposium luncheon announcing the ambassador designation during the time of the protest. Smith later said the symposium was about important issues, and that the protest was an attempt to "disrupt an event that has nothing to do with their narrow agenda."
"The decision about whether non-Indian freedmen descendants have citizenship rights in the Cherokee Nation will be settled in the courts, not in the streets," Smith said. "There are federal court cases in both Oklahoma and Washington, D.C., and I think tactics like this today show that they know the law is not on their side, and they would rather try to bully bystanders than make a case based on facts."
Vann and supporters said they see the event as way to keep attention on an issue that has become a national tribal debate. The matter escalated after a tribal vote in 2007 in which Cherokee voters passed a constitutional amendment to prohibit freedmen tribal citizenship. The tribe has granted temporary tribal citizenship to some descendants of freed Cherokee slaves. To date, about 2,800 freedmen descendants have enrolled into the Cherokee Nation.
The protest also drew support from those with ties to other Five Civilized Tribes, including descendants of freed Muscogee (Creek) Nation slaves. Among them was David May of Norman. May recently researched his tribal lineage to Creek freedmen. Trying to assert citizenship has been a trying matter for him, he said.
"I had my grandmother and grandfather's roll number, and the people at the enrollment office told me that I couldn't register because they were registered as freedmen," he said. "This (issue) is about fair treatment."
Meanwhile, the freedmen position has been championed by the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., and has forwarded the matter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Members of the U.S. House sent a letter to Holder urging him to investigate the claims. Two Oklahoma delegates, Reps. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee, and Tom Cole, R-Moore, sent a response letter to Holder that defended the tribes.
"This is both an issue inherent to tribal sovereignty and, as a legal matter, one that is governed by treaties between these nations and the United States as well as subsequent congressional legislation," the jointly signed letter said. "Consequently, we urge you to reject the request for an investigation."
No response from Holder's office has been received, Vann said.
The issue rose from a tribal court matter after a 2006 Cherokee Nation high court ruling that acknowledged constitutional uncertainty regarding freedmen citizenship. "S.E. Ruckman