OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - The Cherokee Indian tribe on Wednesday retreated from a plan to banish 2,800 African Americans from its citizenship ranks after the federal government froze some funding to the tribe.
The Cherokee, the second-largest tribe in the country with 300,000 members, asked the tribal Supreme Court to withdraw a ruling that allowed the so-called Freedmen to be removed from membership.
The tribe’s legal retreat “is in the best interest of The Nation,” said A. Diane Hammons, the Cherokee attorney general, in a one-page court filing.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development withheld a $33 million disbursement and the Bureau of Indian Affairs said it would not recognize results of an upcoming election for tribal principal chief because of the membership issue.
“That’s powerful,” said Marilyn Vann, a leader of the Freedmen and one of the 2,800 stripped of Cherokee citizenship. “No tribal government can do exactly as it pleases. They have to follow the law.”
The Freedmen are the descendants of slaves once owned by individual Cherokee Indians. When the Cherokee moved from the eastern U.S. to Oklahoma, they brought the slaves with them.
About 3,500 more slave descendants have citizenship applications pending with the tribe while as many as 25,000 others may be eligible for citizenship, according to Ralph Keen Jr., the attorney who represented the Freedmen in the tribal court lawsuit.
Another lawsuit over the issue is pending in U.S. federal court.
The Cherokee-owned slaves were granted tribal citizenship after the Cherokee Naton and the U.S. government signed the Treaty of 1866, which abolished slavery in the so-called Indian Territory, now present-day Oklahoma.
At the time, Congress viewed the Freedmen as more akin to Native Americans than African Americans and concluded they should remain among Indians, according to historians.
But there was always friction between the two, and by 2007 Cherokee leaders organized a campaign to amend the tribe’s constitution to require an ancestral Indian blood link for official citizenship.
The federal government never recognized the amendment to the tribe’s constitution and insisted the 1866 treaty guarantees citizenship for the descendants of the Cherokee-owned slaves.
Joe Crittenden, the acting principal chief of the tribe, has criticized what he called federal interference in tribal affairs. But on Wednesday he said he supported the decision to ask the Cherokee Supreme Court to withdraw its legal ruling against the Freedmen.
“I believe the (Cherokee) nation should do what is best for its people especially since federal HUD money is currently frozen,” he said in a statement.
Editing by Greg McCune