Descendants of black slaves, known as freedmen, who once were owned by members of the Cherokee Nation have a right to tribal citizenship under a ruling handed down by a federal court in Washington, D.C.
US District Judge Thomas Hogan ruled Wednesday in a long-standing dispute between the Cherokee Freedmen and the second-largest tribe in the United States which claims more than 317,000 citizens.
'The Cherokee Nation can continue to define itself as it sees fit,' Hogan wrote in the ruling, 'but must do so equally and evenhandedly with respect to native Cherokees and the descendants of Cherokee Freedmen.'
Waynetta Lawrie, left, of Tulsa, Okla., stands with others at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree said in a statement the tribe does not plan to appeal the ruling.
'The Cherokee Nation respects the rule of law, and yesterday we began accepting and processing citizenship applications from Freedmen descendants,' Hembree said.
'As the Attorney General, I see this as an opportunity to resolve the Freedmen citizenship issue and allow the Cherokee Nation to move beyond this dispute.'
Freedmen have long argued that the Treaty of 1866, signed between the U.S. government and the Tahlequah, Oklahoma-based Cherokees, gave them and their descendants 'all the rights of native Cherokees.'
There are around 3,000 freedmen descendants today.
'Nobody wants to have their rights unilaterally stripped away,' said Marilyn Vann, president of the Oklahoma City-based Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that dates back to 2003.
Leaders of the first Grand Council of the