Black Seminoles pursue legal case
By PHILIP MORGAN of The Tampa Tribune
Originally published Feb. 3, 1999

TAMPA – Descendants of the Black Seminoles are still fighting the U.S. government, not among the pines and palmettos of Florida but in federal court.

Two bands of Black Seminoles, part of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, filed a lawsuit three years ago against the government. The suit charges that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs unfairly left the group’s members out of a 1976 settlement that granted money and benefits to the tribe for Florida lands taken from them last century.

The lawsuit also says the government illegally refused to consider the Black Seminoles for Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood registration cards, which allow people to get tribal benefits. The cards are proof that a person is of Indian blood or is considered Indian by ancestry.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit last spring, ruling that the Black Seminoles had no standing to sue. But the Black Seminoles’ lawyer, Jon Velie of Norman, Okla., has appealed that ruling.

The government’s lawyers contended that the Black Seminoles were slaves when the Florida lands were taken from the Seminole tribe – before the late 1850s – and therefore did not own land. The U.S. government officially recognized the Black Seminoles as part of the tribe in an 1866 treaty.

Velie argued that the Black Seminoles – called freedmen in Oklahoma – have been recognized as members of the Seminole Nation by early treaties, the tribe’s constitution, and past federal court rulings.

In dismissing the lawsuit, Oklahoma U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange accepted the government’s contention that the Seminole Nation as a whole had an interest in the judgment and therefore was an indispensable party to the suit. But because the Seminole Nation has not waived its sovereign immunity from being sued, the judge ruled, the case could not go forward.

In his appeal, Velie contends that the Seminole Nation as a whole is not an indispensable party to the issuance of Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood registration cards. Furthermore, he argues, the U.S. government is the trustee of the judgment fund and cannot “unconstitutionally discriminate on the basis of race” in the distribution of the money.

Velie says he expects the appeal to be argued before a federal appellate court in March.