Freedmen Challenge Special Election

Tuesday, March 6th 2007, 6:00 pm
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) Descendants of people the Cherokee once owned as slaves said they will challenge a special election that kicked them out of the tribe.

They also promised to lobby the U.S. government to cut federal ties to tribe, a move that could cost the Cherokee Nation millions of dollars.

"We're not going to go away," said Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes. "We are calling on the American people to bombard Congress, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, all media outlets, that justice be done."

But one Cherokee Nation official called those threats a scare tactic brought by people more interested in seeing the Cherokee Nation lose funding than seeing the will of the people done.

For decades, descendants of freed Cherokee slaves fought to reclaim their citizenship, even though they were adopted into the tribe in 1866 under a treaty with the U.S. government.

A ruling in 2006 by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court held that the Cherokee constitution assured the freedmen's descendants of tribal citizenship.

That led to a petition drive for a ballot measure to determine who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

On Saturday, more than 76 percent of Cherokee voters decided in a special election to amend the nation's constitution to remove about 2,800 freedmen descendants and other non-Indians from the tribal rolls.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith said the vote was not about race, but represented a right of self-government to decide who is a member of the nation.

"My role as Principal Chief was to bring the issue of citizenship to a vote," he said in a statement Tuesday. "Determination of citizenship is the decision of the people not the Principal Chief, not the Tribal Council and not the court.

"The Cherokee People spoke clearly that as long as you had a Cherokee ancestor on our base roll of 1906, it did not matter what other blood, race or appearance you have.

"They said they want the Cherokee Nation to be an Indian Nation with a common bond: being Indian."

Smith added that Vann "desperately wanted to play the hollow race card against the Cherokee people," but "it did not work because we know we have thousands of citizens who look Black, white, Hispanic or Asian."

Critics of the vote said it was hardly a mandate because only a fraction of the nation's 260,000 tribal citizens -- about 9,000 -- cast ballots. About 45,000 Cherokee were registered to vote in the election.

The vote meant that descendants such as Tahlequah resident Charlene White, 56, would have to look for a new eye doctor to treat her glaucoma and pay out of pocket the $150 a month in groceries the tribe provides her.

"The only thing I regret out of the whole thing is my ancestors were on that Trail of Tears, just as many of them died on that trail as Indians," White said.

In 2000, after the Seminole Nation voted to oust freedmen descendants from its tribe, the government cut off federal programs and refused to recognize the election, said Norman attorney Jon Velie, who has represented freedmen descendants in previous cases. The freedmen were later allowed back in the tribe.

Spokeswomen for the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs said they could not comment Tuesday because of pending litigation involving the case.