Marilyn Vann, a Cherokee Freedmen and president of the Descendants of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes is known for her work within the judicial system, fighting the racial discrimination of African-Indian freedmen and their descendants and educating the public on the history of the freedmen. Vann systematically led a grassroots campaign to secure the tribal citizenship rights for an estimated 40,000 Cherokee Freedmen. Her advocacy had been ignited after she had applied for tribal citizenship only to be denied.
While the case of the Cherokee Freedmen — the descendants of people who were enslaved by members of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma — has continually made headlines during the past decade, the story of American Indians as enslaved people and slave owners remains a relatively unknown aspect of American history. On Feb. 19, 1863 — shortly after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect — the Cherokee Nation issued An Act Providing for the Abolition of Slavery in the Cherokee Nation, which called for “the immediate emancipation of all Slaves in the Cherokee Nation.” In a treaty ratified on July 27, 1866, the Cherokee Nation declared that those Freedmen “and their descendants, shall have all the rights of native Cherokees.” However, 17 years after the treaty was ratified, the Cherokee Nation began a steady attempt to abate these “rights of native Cherokees” to the Freedmen, particularly whenever Cherokee lands were up for sale.
In 2007 Cherokee nation voted that citizenship came only by blood, not the Dawes Roll, which stripped freedmen of their tribal rights. As a result, some 2,800 descendants of Cherokee freedmen were disenrolled—the number of descendants who managed to register within the one-year window since March 2006, the year they were eligible again for citizenship. In August 2017 a U.S. District Court reaffirmed their rights and ruled in favor of the Cherokee freedmen, citing the 1866 treaty the Cherokee Nation and the US government signed after the Civil War.
Senior US District Judge Thomas Hogan said in his ruling that the paramount question was whether the treaty gave the Cherokee Freedmen "all the rights of native Cherokees."
Here's what the judge stated in the case, Cherokee Nation v. Nash:
"The Cherokee Nation can continue to define itself as it sees fit but must do so equally and evenhandedly with respect to native Cherokees and the descendants of Cherokee freedmen. By interposition of Article 9 of the 1866 Treaty, neither has rights either superior or, importantly, inferior to the other. Their fates under the Cherokee Nation Constitution rise and fall equally and in tandem. In accordance with Article 9 of the 1866 Treaty, the Cherokee Freedmen have a present right to citizenship in the Cherokee Nation that is coextensive with the rights of native Cherokees."
While Vann initially fought for freedom within her own tribe, the association represents the Five Civilized Tribes which consists of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole. The Cherokee Freedmen's lead counsel, Jon Velie of Norman, Oklahoma, also put out a statement: “This is a wonderful victory for the Freedmen who regained their identities as equal citizens in their nation. It is a victory against racial oppression and division. It is a win for Native Americans as the federal courts have enforced both treaty rights of citizenship while maintaining tribes and elected officials' rights to determine citizenship and self-determination.”