marilyn vann cherokee freedman cherokee nation
Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes speaks at the Martin Luther King Community Center in Muskogee. March 9, 2019. (Chad Hunter / Cherokee Phoenix)
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Cherokee Freedman descendant Marilyn Vann has made history. Ms. Vann recently became the first descendant of Cherokee Freedmen to hold a government position within the Nation, joining the Environmental Protection Commission. 

The Cherokee Nation is one of the five tribes that enslaved people of African descent prior to emancipation. In an 1866 treaty with the United States government, the enslaved members were freed, with descendants granted Cherokee citizenship and thus known as Freedmen.

However, in 2006, the Cherokee Nation revoked the citizenship rights of Freedman descendants. A spate of lawsuits ensued, including several in which Ms. Vann was a driver of the litigation. Citizenship and Tribal rights were later returned. 

“A long record of government service”

Ms. Vann is currently president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association. According to Vann, “it’s taking a long time to go from being a litigant to becoming a commissioner on a tribal agency.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Vann has been an engineer for over 30 years, working for the United States Treasury Department. According to Cherokee Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr, “Marilyn Vann is an engineer by trade with a long record of government service. [She’s] perfect for the important position of overseeing our environmental protection. So, I’m proud of her, she’s a well qualified trailblazer in every regard.”

Prior to her leadership role, Ms. Vann ran for Cherokee Tribal Council earlier this year. Although her candidacy was unsuccessful, Ms. Vann’s nomination and subsequent confirmation on the Environmental Protection Commission was a “history-making day,” according to Cherokee Principal Chief Hoskin Jr.C

In an interview with High Country News about her achievements, Ms. Vann noted, “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.”

Erika Stone is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, and a graduate assistant at Schusterman Library. A Chess Memorial Scholar, she has a B.A. in Psychology...