Judges Cite Tribes as ‘Once-Sovereign Political Communities’

Carol Berry


American Indians are unique because they are “rooted in the unique status of Indians as. … once-sovereign political communities” a federal appeals court said, citing an earlier ruling as they heard the case of a Choctaw Freedman who July 30 alleged racial animus on the part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

A three-judge panel of the United States Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals used that term from United States v. Antelope, (1977) and also cited Morton v. Mancari, (1974) which described Indians “not as a discrete racial group, but, rather, as members of quasi-sovereign tribal entities.”

Both quotations that seem to diminish tribal sovereignty were used in connection with attempts to be considered “Indian” for government assistance purposes by Charles A. Greene, the great-grandson of Bennie Vinson, a Choctaw Indian Freedman listed on the l906 Index and Final Rolls of the Citizens and Freedmen of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Tribes.

Classifications of “Indian” and “non-Indian” in this case are not based upon “[constitutionally] impermissible racial classifications” but are between “blood and non-blood Choctaw Indians,” the justices said. They noted that those without Native descent married to tribal members in 1906 were also on the Rolls but excluded from receiving Certificates of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB), required today for some federal assistance programs.

Unable to get a CDIB because of a lack of quantifiable “blood” descent, Greene appealed to the BIA for a form with which he could apply for federal recognition as a descendant of a Choctaw Indian Freedman but the BIA denied the request, explaining that no such form existed.

The lower court had dismissed his case, but the Tenth Circuit heard the part of his complaint dealing with alleged constitutional violations concerning abuse of government authority. The appeals court upheld the district court.

The justices were careful to note that they were not ruling on a within-tribe matter and that their decision was “unpublished opinion, not binding precedent” but could be cited for other uses.

In contrast to the federal appeals court’s references to other cases that defined limited sovereignty, a National Congress of American Indians official noted there is U.S. Supreme Court precedent that tribes are sovereigns. The NCAI states on its web page that the organization was formed “in 1944 to fight against termination, and every day since, members of our organization have successfully protected tribal sovereignty.”

Spokesmen for the Native American Rights Fund and the Choctaw Nation’s legal department were unavailable for immediate comment.

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