Marilyn Vann becomes the first person of Freedmen status in Cherokee Nation government

A retired engineer and Freedmen activist, Vann joins the tribe’s Environmental Protection Commission.


Marilyn Vann, the first person with Freedman status to hold a government position with the Cherokee Nation, poses for a portrait at her home in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

For over 20 years, Marilyn Vann has been fighting for the rights of Freedmen, descendants of people enslaved by members of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole Nations. Vann, who is president of the Descendants of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, worked for over three decades as an engineer for the U.S. Treasury Department. This month, she became the first person of Freedmen status to attain a government position in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

After an unsuccessful run for tribal council earlier this year, Vann was nominated to the Environmental Protection Commission by Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and confirmed by tribal council on Sept. 13. Hoskin said it was a “history-making day” and called Vann a “highly qualified trailblazer.” Vann’s first commission meeting will be in the first week of October. HCN spoke with her about what she hopes to accomplish, and what this means for Freedmen descendants.

 This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

High Country News: What do you hope to accomplish on the Environmental Protection Commission?

Marilyn Vann: Well, we have not had our first meeting, but some of the things that the commissioners do is they review the environmental code for the tribe and make recommendations if changes are made, or need to be made. They also deal with permitting for the tribe. Now, I’m going to tell you this: I am not exactly sure how much sovereignty the tribe can exercise in certain areas. Everybody’s heard of this McGirt decision that basically said the Creek Nation Reservation was still in effect. And the other four tribes of the Five Tribes, they’ve also — I don’t want to say support — but there's been amicus briefs filed, and judges have held that their reservations, for instance the Cherokee Nation’s, are still intact.

However, in 2005, Sen. James Inhofe did have a rider to a bill that pretty much gave environmental regulatory authority to the state of Oklahoma. So I’m not exactly sure if the tribe can look at more than land in trust, or restricted lands, or other land that might be, say, fee land that the tribe owns. These are things that I’m going to be finding out in the next few weeks. And the tribe may still be developing a policy here. It’s possible that the Natural Resources Department is still looking into this.

HCN: Has the general stance of the Cherokee Nation been to develop land resources for oil, or has it been more for conservation, or both?

MV: I would say more for conservation. When the Cherokee Nation left the old homelands, the Cherokee Nation Reservation included what is now Osage County, on which, later on, a huge reservoir was found. The Cherokee Nation really has very little oil or minerals welled. When the Cherokee Nation allotments were made under the Curtis Act of 1898, the mineral rights went to each allottee. It wasn’t like the Osages, where the tribe was able to hold all the minerals in common, and then each allottee received a land allotment. It would have been stronger for the tribe, if such had been the case. But the Cherokee Nation really doesn’t have a lot of minerals. The Creek Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, they have more oil and gas mineral wealth. But again, at the time that the allotments were made, nobody knew that that was there, and again, it wasn’t held in common.

HCN: You’re the first person of Freedmen status to hold this kind of position with the Cherokee Nation, is that right? 

MV: Yes, I am the first person of Freedmen status that is holding a commission or a board position.

 I’m hoping that there are going to be more young people in the Cherokee Nation that are going to go into STEM positions or professions. 

HCN: How does that feel, considering all the work that you've done with the Descendants of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes?

MV: Well, it makes me feel good that I’m able to use my talents and education hopefully to benefit the tribe. And I’m hoping that there are going to be more young people in the Cherokee Nation that are going to go into STEM positions or professions. So, yeah, I feel good. I feel good, and I want to add value.

HCN: When you were campaigning, there was at least one person on tribal council who had objected to your campaign. How has the reception been since your appointment to the commission?

MV: The person who actually filed the lawsuit was a person also running for office. The laws were changed, I think a year or two ago, that you can’t go to tribal court and challenge someone if you’re not actually running for the same office. You have to have status to be able to do that sort of thing. But there is a person that’s on the council that has been vocal about opposing Freedmen citizenship and the like. I don’t personally know the person.

HCN: Are they a vocal minority, or an exception?

MV: The majority of the council, I would say, have accepted that Freedmen have legal citizenship rights based on the treaty and based on court decisions. I would say there are one or two persons that have problems with that. So, I would say the majority of people, they support the Freedmen, or at least they’ve extended the Freedmen rights.

Brian Oaster (they/them) is an editorial intern at High Country News and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They are an award-winning investigative journalist living in the Pacific Northwest. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy.

Note: This story’s headline was updated to clarify that Vann is the first person with Freedmen status to join the Cherokee government. The previous headline said she was the first Freedmen to join the government. 

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