OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Descendants of former black slaves once owned by members of the Cherokee Nation are asking a federal judge to block a tribal election for principal chief until the tribe restores their full citizenship rights, including the right to vote.
In legal papers filed Sept. 2 in Washington, D.C., descendants of Cherokee freedmen, as they are known, asked a federal judge to halt a Sept. 24 election for principal chief of the Oklahoma-based tribe. A hearing on the request is set for Sept. 20 before U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr.
Documents filed by attorneys for the freedmen accuse the tribe of violating a 145-year-old treaty when the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court last month restored a voter-approved amendment denying citizenship to non-Native American descendants of tribal members’ former black slaves. The court reversed a lower court ruling that had voided the amendment approved by trial voters in 2007. The court’s decision affected an estimated 2,800 freedmen.
The decision means freedmen will not be able to participate in a Sept. 24 election between tribal councilman Bill John Baker and former Principal Chief Chad Smith, freedman attorney Jon Velie said. The election is being held after the tribal Supreme Court in July threw out the results of a disputed June 25 election between the two men. The freedmen were allowed to vote in that election.
“They’ve expelled them from when that election ended and the new election,” Velie said.
He said federal courts have consistently ruled that the Treaty of 1866, adopted shortly after the Civil War to help eradicate slavery, granted citizenship to freedmen, including the right to vote.
Among other things, the freedmen want an injunction barring recognition of a Cherokee Nation election until citizenship rights are restored to freedmen. They also want a judge to block distribution of federal funds to the Cherokee Nation and prevent the U.S. government from recognizing the tribe.
“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,” Velie said.
Velie said he believes the Supreme Court’s decision to strip freedmen of their rights was designed to remove a segment of tribal voters before the hotly contested election.
“The Cherokee Nation’s decision to oust its freedmen citizens on the eve of the election for its principal chief was a bad decision made for political gain at the expense of all of Indian County,” Velie said.
Cherokee Nation Attorney General Diane Hammons said in a statement that the election for principal chief will have no impact on the citizenship status of freedmen descendants and halting it would not be appropriate.
“However, the important thing to notice is the direct attack by the non-Indian freedmen descendants on the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation, asking for the termination of the tribe’s existence,” Hammons said. She said that if the freedmen’s request is granted, funding for health care services could be halted for hundreds of thousands of Cherokee citizens.
The tribal Supreme Court threw out the results of the June 25 election for principal chief of the 300,000-member tribe following weeks of legal bickering and conflicting vote tallies. During various recounts, Smith and Baker were each declared the winner.
The tribe’s principal chief administers a $600 million annual budget, has veto power and sets the tribe’s national agenda, which is crucial since many tribal members live outside Oklahoma. The chief also oversees the tribe’s casinos, health care facilities and thousands of tribal employees.