The Cherokee Supreme Court recently approved the dumping of 2,800 descendants of the nation's black slaves—called "freedmen"—off its tribal rolls in the middle of a contested election for principal chief.

Being de-enrolled also cuts some of those freedmen's medical and education benefits, as well as food stipends.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has called the move "unconstitutional." Joe Crittenden, the acting principal chief of the Cherokee, responded that his nation remains sovereign and will govern itself as it sees fit. The freedmen countered that the Cherokee have violated a 145 year-old treaty and are scheduled to have a hearing before a U.S. District Court judge on Sept 20. The election for principal chief is scheduled for Sept 24.

Says freedmen attorney Joe Velie:

“There is a group of Cherokee citizens that have citizenship conferred on them by the Treaty of 1866 that have now had their rights terminated by the Cherokee Nation while the United States is refusing to live up to its duties to live up to its treaty obligations."

This is going to be a very instructive mess. The dispute, and how the courts deal with it, might set the tone as federal, state, and tribal governments reevaluate what treaties and sovereignty mean—a reevaluation that is being spurred by a generational shift in tribal leadership and the economic roiling both on and off the reservations.