Cherokee Nation, Federal Government Fight Over Rights Of Freed Slave Descendants

Associated Press

TULSA, Okla. -- The Cherokee Nation's election commission voted Wednesday to allow descendants of slaves once owned by tribal members to cast ballots for principal chief, but they'll only count in the event of a court order.

Federal officials objected to a ruling last month by the tribe's highest court that found only people of direct Cherokee ancestry could be members of the tribe and vote in the upcoming election, essentially denying ballots to some 2,800 freedmen descendants.

While the election commission's vote doesn't directly overturn the ruling by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, it does allow for freedmen to cast provisional ballots in an effort to make the election results stand, regardless of how the courts ultimately rule.

"If a court decides the freedmen descendants can vote we will have the ability to certify the election," Election Commission chairwoman Susan Plumb said. "If the court decides they cannot vote, we will still be able to preserve the election."

The longstanding dispute between the tribe and the freedmen has only complicated the Sept. 24 special election between former Chief Chad Smith and tribal council member Bill John Baker.

Tribal Supreme Court justices tossed results of the original June 25 election after finding the winner of the contest couldn't be determined with a mathematical certainty. A new election was ordered.

The election has drawn national interest because while the tribe is based in Tahlequah, many of its 300,000 members live outside Oklahoma.

On Aug. 22, the tribe's high court overturned a tribal district court ruling that nullified the 2007 constitutional amendment on grounds that it violated an 1866 treaty between the tribe and federal government that granted former slaves citizenship. The justices disagreed, saying the treaty never afforded citizenship to the ex-slaves.

After the tribe sent out letters kicking freedmen descendants out of the tribe and stripping them of their voting rights and benefits, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development froze $33 million in funds to the tribe. Earlier this week, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk wrote a sternly worded letter disagreeing with the tribal court decision.

"I urge you to consider carefully the nation's next steps in proceeding with an election that does not comply with federal law," Echo Hawk wrote in a letter Friday to acting Chief S. Joe Crittenden. "The department will not recognize any action taken by the nation that is inconsistent with these principles and does not accord its freedmen members full rights of citizenship."

Crittenden said Tuesday the special election would take place as scheduled and told citizens the nation would not be governed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.