Havana Vann, who belongs to a Cherokee descendants society, is watching the outcome of a Cherokee Supreme Court trial that will determine the validity of a petition that seeks to make Indian blood a tribal membership requirement.
JAMES GIBBARD / Tulsa World
Filing adds new turn to tribal case
By S.E. RUCKMAN World Staff Writer
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A Cherokee Nation court hearing today could halt a special election over freedmen's tribal membership.
MUSKOGEE -- Like many people with American Indian lineage, Havana Vann of Fort Gibson is proud of her heritage.
Vann can trace her bloodline to Nanyehe -- or Nancy -- Ward, a Cherokee patriot. Vann proudly brandishes a certificate declaring her membership in the Nancy Ward Society, a genealogical group.
"She was a beloved woman of the Cherokee, a very high status in the tribe," Vann said. "I can prove Cherokee blood on both sides of my family."
But despite Vann's blood tie to the 18th-century Cherokee VIP, the Cherokee Nation regards her as belonging to the category of "freedmen," the tribal category for descendants of the slaves of Cherokees.
For this reason, Vann will closely watch what happens with a hearing that is slated to begin at 8 a.m. Friday in the Cherokee Supreme Court.
The plaintiffs in the civil case are questioning the legality of an initiative petition that called for a vote on whether Cherokee blood should be a constitutional requirement for tribal citizenship.
But a last-minute filing by the Cherokee Election Commission's attorney could see the case take another
Attorney James Cosby filed a protest Wednesday, asserting that while Cherokee Chief Chad Smith can call a special election on a referendum petition, he cannot do so on an initiative petition, as he did in this case.
Cosby contends that only the Tribal Council has the authority to call the special election, according to the tribe's laws and constitution.
"If the Court confirms that the Principal Chief cannot call a special election in initiative petitions then the protest of the Petition is a moot point," the filing reads.
Cosby's petition protest is the second filed with the court. Freedmen descendent Vicki Baker of Chelsea earlier challenged the validity of the initiative petition, and it is that challenge that is slated to be heard Friday.
Those circulating the petition collected about 2,000 names of registered tribal voters, and the Election Commission validated the signatures Oct. 5. The next day, Smith called for a special election in which tribal members would vote on amending their constitution's membership requirements, court records show.
The special election was set for February, and a court date regarding the challenge subsequently was ordered for Friday.
Freedmen descendent lay advocate David Cornsilk said Cherokee Chief Justice Darell Matlock could either dismiss Baker's case or continue with the hearing after reviewing Cosby's filing.
At stake is the tribal citizenship of some 2,000 freedmen descendents who have registered with the tribe since its Supreme Court confirmed their membership rights in March.
If the February special election is not held, the constitutional amendment question is set to go on the regular tribal election ballot in June. A yes vote by Cherokee voters would pave the way to remove freedmen from the tribal rolls.
Tribal spokesman Mike Miller said Friday's court date set by Matlock reflects the urgency of the matter for the tribe.
Cornsilk said he subpoenaed several people to testify Friday that a number of signatures on the petition violate the tribe's petition guidelines.
"I will say that my phone has been ringing off the hook from people who are shocked that their names, signatures and blue card (Cherokee membership card) numbers are on the petition," he said.
Tribes maintain the right to determine their own citizenship requirements, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Smith has said publicly that a constitutional amendment to Cherokee membership requirements would ensure that the 250,000-member tribe is composed of Indians by blood.
Despite what's at stake for her citizenship, Vann seems unruffled by the tribal court proceedings. She is in no hurry to be removed from the rolls, considering that she was 75 before she was allowed to enroll, she said.
"I am just pulling for there to be a justice done," Vann said. "I am holding out for that."