Justices say Cherokees must grant membership to descendants of slaves. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma’s highest court has ruled that the tribe has to give citizenship to descendants of slaves known as the Cherokee Freedmen.

The decision by the Judicial Appeals Tribunal puts an end to decades of legal controversy over the freedmen’s status.

“Words cannot express the joy and vindication that I feel-not only for myself and my family, but for the thousands of other Freedmen who experienced the harsh pain of rejection just because of the color of their skin,” said Lucy Allen, one of the freedmen that pursued the case, in a statement.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said David Cornsilk, a Cherokee that personally advocated on behalf of the group.

In the 2-1 decision, the appeals tribunal ruled that the freedmen, descendants of African slaves owned by Cherokees before the tribe abolished slavery, should be allowed to become members of the tribe if they could trace lineage to the Dawes Rolls of the Five Civilized Tribes. The Cherokees long maintained that the tribe’s 1975 constitution only allowed for people that could show they possessed Indian blood.

"We had argued that the intent of the framers of the 1975 Constitution was to limit citizenship to Indians by blood, either Cherokees by blood or adopted Shawnees and Delawares," said Cherokee general counsel Diane Hammons. "We made that argument based upon our reliance of a prior [appeals court] decision, a review of the historical documents surrounding the 1975 Constitution, and interviews with surviving framers."

The court disagreed, saying the constitution makes no mention of blood quantum.

"The words 'by blood' or 'Cherokee by blood' do not appear,” wrote justice Stacy Leeds.

The ruling could impact thousands of Oklahomans. The Cherokees are already the largest tribe in the country.

The tribe has been fighting the freedmen's claims for years. Former Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller was quoted as saying as far back as 1984 that the group should not be members of the tribe because they do not have Cherokee blood. One reason for opposing the freedmen’s inclusion is the fear that tribal services would be diluted with the addition of thousands of new members.

The court’s ruling leaves tribal officials little choice.

"We are a strong tripartite government that respects the rule of law," Hammons said. "Our Court has announced its decision, and we accept that as the law of the land."

In their written ruling, the appeals tribunal acknowledged that Indian identity is a hot-button issue.

“People will always disagree on who is culturally Cherokee and who possesses enough Cherokee blood to be ‘racially’ Indian. It is not the role of the Court to engage in these political or social debates.”

The case could have implications for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The Okmulgee-based tribe has several freedman cases pending before their own court.

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You can reach Sam Lewin at [email protected]