Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree: Cherokee Morality Should Decide Freedmen Issue

Article excerpt

Within the legally complex Cherokee freedmen issue is a question of morality, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree told members of the Federal Bar Association on Thursday.

"Any sovereign group has a right to decide who's in and who's out," he said. "But there's a difference between having the right to do something, that is be in power when you have the opportunity to do something, and doing the right thing."

Litigants in at least three court cases argue that their ancestors' status as freedmen, former slaves of Cherokees who were adopted into the tribe under an 1866 treaty, entitles them to the right of citizenship in the tribe. The Cherokee Nation amended its constitution in 2007 to remove 2,867 freedmen descendants from tribal membership. Those individuals were later reinstated during the pendency of the litigation.

Ogletree outlined legal decisions that at one time held that blacks had no rights whites needed to respect, labeling them property and placing them below Native Americans, who were themselves referred to as savages.

"Does everyone lose, when we start to, in our own community, narrowly define citizenship?" he said.

Ogletree cautioned those in attendance against engaging in a dispute that could eventually harm both sides.

"I see this debate about the Cherokee Nation and the freedmen as a chance to think about a consolidated effort to improve all of our situations," he said. "We have more in common than we have in difference."

Cherokee Chief Chad Smith spoke on behalf of the tribe.

"This is probably the perfect emotional storm," Smith said, pointing out that both sides understand the harmful effects of slavery.

However, he said the tribes fought long and hard to maintain a sense of sovereignty. …