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July 5, 2012

Counterclaim filed in freedmen dispute

OKLAHOMA CITY — The U.S. Department of the Interior has filed a counter-lawsuit seeking to stop the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma from denying tribal citizenship and other rights to the descendants of slaves once owned by some tribal members.

The counterclaim, filed in U.S. District Court in Tulsa on Monday, also seeks an injunction and a declaratory judgment that an 1866 treaty “provided Cherokee Freedmen and their descendants with ‘all the rights of native Cherokees,’ including the right to citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.”

The filing is the latest chapter in a long-running dispute between the descendants of slaves, known as freedmen, and the second-largest tribe in the United States.

The freedmen sued the Cherokee Nation after members voted in 2007 to amend the tribal constitution to restrict citizenship to those who could show at least one ancestor was listed on the Dawes Rolls. A federal court order has kept the citizenship of about 2,800 descendants intact pending the outcome.

Some Cherokees and members of other tribes in the southeastern U.S. were slaveholders and were allied with the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the war ended, the Cherokee Nation and the federal government signed the Treaty of 1866, which said the freedmen and their descendants “shall have all the rights of native Cherokees.”

The Interior Department wants the court to declare that the tribal constitution amendment is inconsistent with the Treaty of 1866.

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