Citing potential solutions still available through the tribal legal system, a federal judge has dismissed a citizenship lawsuit from Muscogee (Creek) freedmen descendants.
Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly with the District Court for the District of Columbia this week rejected arguments that going through the Muscogee (Creek) Nation court and administrative system would be an exercise in futility for the freedmen descendants and granted Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief James Floyd’s motion to dismiss the case without prejudice.
Floyd, Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt and the Department of Interior were listed as defendants in a civil lawsuit filed in July on behalf of four named plaintiffs, an unnamed minor and the Muscogee Creek Freedman Band Inc., a nonprofit organization representing more than 850 freedmen descendants.
As Kollar-Kotelly noted in her opinion, the court filings from the freedmen descendants did not include specific allegations or documentation that they had applied for tribal citizenship and been rejected within the last decade.
“Failed attempts to obtain a grant of citizenship from the MCN Citizenship Board as well as refusals by the tribal courts to reconsider adverse determinations may show that tribal exhaustion may be futile,” Kollar-Kotelly wrote. “But, plaintiffs have failed to produce sufficient evidence that a remedy through the tribal process would be illusory in this case.”
Along with full tribal citizenship, the group is seeking to have the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s constitution declared void and in violation of the Treaty of 1866, which guaranteed tribal citizenship to the tribe’s freed slaves and their descendants, as well as those of black Creeks.
Adopted in 1979 via referendum vote and approved by the Department of Interior, Article III of the tribe’s constitution restricts citizenship eligibility to individuals who are the lineal descendants of Creeks listed on the final rolls compiled by the federal government via the Dawes Commission in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Since the case was dismissed without prejudice, the freedmen descendants could re-file their lawsuit in federal court if the tribe denies their citizenship applications and the appeals process is exhausted through the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s judicial system.
Tulsa attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons is representing the group. A Creek freedmen descendant whose own tribal citizenship application has been rejected, Solomon-Simmons said he and his clients are disappointed by the ruling, but remain hopeful.
“We know the law is on our side, the facts are on our side and history is on our side,” he said. “This is just another obstacle we have to overcome. … I think we have a great judge and I believe based on how the opinion was written that she sees our case has merit.”
The group has not decided yet whether they will appeal, submit additional documentation and ask for reconsideration or follow Kollar-Kotelly’s opinion and seek citizenship through the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s citizenship board and court system.
“All of our plaintiffs have filed for citizenship before,” he said. “I feel my clients have gone down that road already, but it seems like the court wants us to do it again.”
The country’s fourth largest tribe, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is headquartered in Okmulgee and has more than 86,000 enrolled citizens. The tribe’s Office of Public Relations did not respond to requests for comment by deadline. In a statement provided to the tribe’s newspaper, Muscogee Nation News, Floyd expressed his gratitude for the ruling.
“We are grateful for the court’s respect for the administrative and judicial processes that are provided for under the nation’s laws,” he said.
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