Energy & Environment

Interior secretary approves new Cherokee constitution providing citizenship rights for freedmen

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Rep. Debra Haaland (D-NM), President Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior, testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resource, at the U.S. Capitol on February 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. Rep. Haaland’s opposition to fracking and early endorsement of the Green New Deal has made her one…

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Wednesday that the department has approved a new constitution for the Cherokee Nation that affirms the citizenship of people formerly enslaved by members of the nation.

The constitution, which Cherokee law requires be approved by the Interior secretary, settles disputes dating back to the end of the Civil War over the so-called Cherokee Freedmen. 

Cherokee delegates drafted a new constitution in 1999 which was approved by the Nation in 2003 but not formally submitted to the Interior Department until this March.

In the meantime, a federal district court ruled in 2017 that the Cherokee Freedmen had full citizenship rights within the nation “coextensive with the rights of native Cherokees.” The Nation’s own Supreme Court declared that decision binding in February.

The new constitution would provide citizenship for both formerly enslaved peoples and their descendants. 

“[O]ver time, being a part of a tribal nation gave them access to resources that were not available in other places – that is, once they were freed. And so there’s a lot of descendants of freedmen who – their only access to health care is through the tribal health care system, the Cherokee Nation’s health care system,” Graham Lee Brewer, a member of the Nation and an Indigenous affairs editor at High Country News, told NPR in February.

“And so the discussion about removing them from the citizenship status – it wasn’t just a citizenship question. It was a civil rights question.”

In a statement released Wednesday, Haaland, the first Senate-confirmed Native American Cabinet secretary, said: “The Cherokee Nation’s actions have brought this longstanding issue to a close and have importantly fulfilled their obligations to the Cherokee Freedmen.”

“Today’s actions demonstrate that Tribal self-governance is the best path forward to resolving internal Tribal conflicts,” she added. “We encourage other Tribes to take similar steps to meet their moral and legal obligations to the Freedmen.”

Tags Cherokee Nation Deb Haaland Interior Department

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