Cherokee Chief not ready to end fight to keep out Freedmen


Last Updated: 6 years

The chief of the Cherokees is advocating the tribal council reverse the highest tribal court’s ruling that freedmen were illegally denied tribal citizenship.

Freedmen, descendants of freed slaves who joined the Cherokees in the 1800s, are to be recognized as citizens with privileges, under the tribal constitution, the Judicial Appeals Tribunal ruled last week.

Cherokee Nation Councilor Bill John Baker of Tahlequah said the ruling is “the law of the land.”

“The court has ruled and I think it (Principal Chief Chad Smith’s trying to change it) is much to do about nothing,” Baker said Wednesday.

Smith appointed the court, Baker said.

“I think he appealed – the court’s ruled – he doesn’t like it, so now it needs to be a vote of the people?” Baker said.

In his state of the nation address Monday, Smith suggested the Judicial Appeals Tribunal’s ruling could be addressed with a tribal constitutional convention to amend the current constitution or through a referendum petition.

Smith contends citizenship is the right of the people to decide, not the courts, despite the court’s ruling is the sole interpretation of the tribal constitution.

“These Cherokees believe the freedmen did not help during the last 100 years to rebuild the Cherokee Nation and should not at this late time reap any benefits that Cherokees have earned,” Smith said.

Baker said he’s talked to a few councilors who are jumping right in with “Chad’s rhetoric and others are saying right’s right. We are to make our own rules and live by them, and the Tribunal has spoken, and our court supersedes.”

As far as Smith wanting to change the constitution, “we’re not even living under the new constitution,” Baker said.

Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen Association, said she was disappointed by Smith’s reasoning.

“The judges have written a very detailed decision. I would like to think the council and voters realize that,” she said. “I see the Cherokee Nation as a nation, not a race.”

“If the freedmen have not participated in building up the nation so far, it’s because they haven’t been allowed to. They haven’t allowed us to use our talents to serve.”

David Cornsilk, the Cherokee lay advocate who represented the freedmen before the high court, said if Smith thinks there needs to be redress, “he’s a racist.”

Cornsilk, a Cherokee historian, said earlier there are probably between 12,000 and 25,000 Freedmen who could be added to the rolls. That means thousands more voters and thousands more people to receive services.

Smith, whose greatest support is from the absentee voters, could be in trouble if 12,000 to 25,000 freedmen wield their power in retaliation.

Councilor Don Garvin of Muskogee said the Tribunal had spoken “and I accept that as the law of the land. But the court also said the Cherokee citizens have the authority to decide tribal citizenship.”

Garvin would not commit himself as to whether he wanted to have another constitutional convention or a referendum to keep the freedmen out, although Smith has come out for that.

When asked if he had ever voted against anything Smith wanted, Garvin said he was sure he had but couldn’t name any time he did so.

“It’s hard to be against him when he’s right,” Garvin said.

The Rules Committee in its March 30 meeting probably will take up the matter, Garvin said.

“I’m going to wait to hear what that group says,” Garvin said.

All council members are members of the Rules Committee, Garvin said.


You can reach reporter Donna Hales at 684-2923 or This article was originally published March 16, 2006 in the Muskogee Phoenix.