The Cherokee Nation, the second largest tribe in the United States, has affirmed a motion to deny benefits to thousands of descendants of Black slaves.
Those descendants, or so-called Freedman, will effectively lose tribal benefits such as free health care and educational concessions, Reuters reports.
The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruled this week to uphold a previous decision made in 2007 to remove Freedmen from the tribe.
The controversy stems from a footnote in the brutal history of U.S. treatment of Native Americans. When many Indians were forced to move to what later became Oklahoma from the eastern U.S. in 1838, some who had owned plantations in the South brought along their slaves.
Some 4,000 Indians died during the forced march, which became known as the "Trail of Tears."
"And our ancestors carried the baggage," said Marilyn Vann, the Freedman leader who is a plaintiff in the legal battle.
Officially, there are about 2,800 Freedmen, but another 3,500 have tribal membership applications pending, and there could be as many as 25,000 eligible to enter the tribe, according to Vann.
The tribal court decision came just one day before absentee ballots were to be mailed in the election of the Cherokee Principal Chief.
Vann called the move "racism and apartheid in the 21st Century," in the article. The move also irked African-American members of Congress, which has jurisdiction over all Native American tribes in the country, the report adds.
A lawsuit challenging the Freedman’s removal from the tribe has been hung up in federal court for about six years.
Because the Cherokee Nation acts as a sovereign nation, they are free to amend their constitutional membership requirements, according to the report.