Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. announces the tribe is seeking changes to the federal Major Crimes Act.


TULSA, Okla. — Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. announced the tribe is seeking changes to the federal Major Crimes Act, affording Cherokee citizens of Freedmen descent equal rights in the federal justice system.

The Major Crimes Act is the federal law that governs criminal jurisdiction of tribal citizens on tribal reservations. But the law, passed in 1885, has been interpreted by federal courts to require tribal citizens to have “Indian blood” discriminating against Cherokee citizens of Freedmen descent who may be tried in state court with other non-tribal members.

“By our Cherokee Nation Constitution and our tribal statutes, all Cherokee citizens are treated equally under our laws including criminal laws, irrespective of their descendancy, but this federal law is preventing our Freedmen citizens from equal treatment in the federal courts when it comes to their legal cases and this simply is not fair,” Chief Hoskin said. “We are asking for this change through an act of Congress or through the courts so our citizens can truly be treated equal.”

Chief Hoskin and Deputy Principal Chief Bryan Warner announced the move at an event at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa.

The Cherokee Nation currently has more than 15,000 citizens of Freedmen descent enrolled. The tribe’s 1866 Treaty with the U.S. government granted Freedmen “all the rights of native Cherokees.” And a 2017 federal court ruling, and Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruling affirmed that Freedmen descendants are full Cherokee citizens under the law.

“We’ve upheld our ancestors wishes ensuring Cherokee citizens of Freedmen descent have equal protections in voting, running for office, services and in our Constitution and this specific federal law should not limit that equality,” Deputy Chief Bryan Warner said. “For Cherokee Nation, this exercise of tribal sovereignty means we count as tribal citizens all of those who descend from the Cherokee portion of the Dawes rolls in a variety of ways, including Freedmen descendants.”

Chief Hoskin and Deputy Chief Warner reached out to the Five Tribes leaders to notify them of the tribe’s intent and have begun reaching out to members of Congress and federal officials.

“The change we seek is narrowly tailored to ensure equality for Cherokee citizens of Freedmen descent on the basis that they are equal citizens within the Cherokee Nation,” Chief Hoskin said.

The citizenship rights of individuals of freedmen descent connected to other tribal nations has not yet been fully resolved.

“We know there are some tribal citizens out there who may be prosecuted in state court after the U.S. Supreme Court McGirt decision, because of the Major Crimes Act,” Cherokee Nation Attorney General Chad Harsha said. “We are taking an inventory of these cases as we lobby to change this law and ensure all Cherokee citizens are treated equally as a matter of equality in the federal justice system.”

Chief Hoskin said the tribe will either find a suitable criminal case in which a Cherokee citizen of Freedmen descent is subjected to state prosecution and advocate, within that case, that the defendant be treated as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and not subject to state jurisdiction while also exploring a federal legislative change that could, as an alternative, achieve that outcome for Cherokee citizens of freedman descent.  

“In both instances the necessity under federal law of a “blood quantum” must be resolved in favor of including, rather than excluding, Cherokee Nation citizens of Freedmen descent under the Major Crimes Act,” Chief Hoskin added.