OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - A tribal court ruling that the Cherokee Nation must allow descendants of former slaves owned by Indians to be tribal members, has again raised the painful history of the forcible removal of the Indians to Oklahoma in the nineteenth century.
A Cherokee Nation tribal court ruled on Friday that the nation cannot exclude the so-called "Freedmen" from tribal membership even though some of them are not blood descendants of the Indians.
The issue arises because when the U.S. government forced Indian tribes to walk from the Southeast U.S. to Oklahoma in 1831, in what the Indians described as the "Trail of Tears", some of them brought their African-American slaves with them.
They brought them because the Cherokee owned plantations in the U.S. South. When the tribe was ejected from the land they were allowed to take their possessions with them, including the slaves.
After the Civil War, those slaves were freed and an 1866 treaty with the U.S. required the Cherokee to admit to the tribe the slaves and their descendants, some with Cherokee blood because plantation owners had fathered children with slave women, and some with no Indian blood.
In 2007, the Cherokee tribe voted for a tribal constitutional amendment that revoked the membership of the slave descendants who could not prove Cherokee blood. This stripped more than 2,800 Freedmen descendants of tribal membership, most of them African-Americans. Friday's ruling invalidates the Amendment.
The case is being heard separately in a U.S. Federal court.
"We have received the (tribal court) decision with which we respectfully disagree," said Diane Hammons, Attorney General for the Cherokee Nation. She said the tribe might appeal.
Marilyn Vann, a member of the Cherokee Freedmen and president of the organization that represents descendants of the former slaves, said the Friday decision was a step in the right direction but action in U.S. Federal court was more important.
"This shows that some in the Cherokee Nation want to rule by law instead of inciting base interest for their own political gain," Vann said.
Vann said some in the Cherokee tribe did not want to allow the descendants of slaves to vote on issues such as distributing the millions of dollars of tribal income from gambling casinos.
"It's about control of the money," Vann said. "They have casinos and hundreds of millions of dollars they don't have to pay taxes on. They don't want to have to account for what they spend that money on."
Editing by Greg McCune