A last-minute agreement allowing nearly 3,000 descendants of slaves once owned by members of the Cherokee Nation to vote for the tribe's principal chief was being hailed Wednesday by supporters who called it a major victory in the group's decades-long fight to become fully recognized tribal members while cautioning that "the war is still not over."
At least two tribal attorneys hailed the compromise hatched a day earlier outside a Washington D.C. federal courtroom as a milestone for the descendants, known as freedmen, because it was the first time the Cherokee Nation admitted in a federal courtroom that the freedmen had tribal rights.
The compromise calls for extending balloting for this Saturday's special election until Oct. 8 so that those qualified to vote can be notified and participate. Previously, hundreds of freedmen descendants were only told they could cast provisional ballots Saturday, but they would only be counted in the event of a court order.
"This is why it's such a huge day for the freedmen," said tribal attorney Jon Velie, who represents some of the freedmen in court. "I hope this is in indicator the healing process may now begin between the Cherokee administration and the Cherokee people, and hopefully leads to the inclusion of the Cherokee freedmen in the tribe as a whole."
Attorney Ralph Keen Jr., who also represents freedmen clients in tribal court, applauded the compromise _ finally inked between the Cherokee Nation and attorneys for the freedmen Wednesday morning _ but referred to the ongoing federal case that will ultimately determine who is a citizen of the nation.
"I would say the freedmen won this battle, but the war is still not over," Keen said. "The federal court still needs to determine the matter, which is a good thing."
Saturday's special election for the leader of Oklahoma's largest American Indian tribe was ordered by the tribe's Supreme Court after recounts from a flawed election in June were reversed several times, with the longtime chief and his challenger each being declared the winner twice. Tribal experts believe the freedmen could swing the vote to new leadership of one of the country's largest tribes.
Chad Smith, who was chief until a temporary replacement was named after the June election, has actively campaigned for the last decade to remove non-Cherokee freedmen from the tribe's voter rolls. His challenger, longtime tribal councilman Bill John Baker, also backed their removal but not as vocal and is believed to have the support of many freedmen who voted.
In dueling statements Wednesday, Baker and Smith blamed each other for the reason the freedmen were being allowed to vote. Baker accused Smith and his attorneys of cutting Tuesday's compromise deal to allow the freedmen to vote while "ignoring our nation's sovereignty." Smith implied Baker and an aide made a deal to allow Baker's (freedmen) supporters to vote even though it violated tribal law.
Although no official breakdown exists, attorneys for the freedmen estimate that between 330 and 500 freedmen voted during that election. The tribe initially announced Smith had won by 11 votes, but subsequent tallies had the margins at seven, 266 and five votes.
After ballots were counted a fifth time from the June election, the tribe's Supreme Court said it couldn't be sure the tally was correct and ordered a new election.
But in the meantime, it upheld a 2007 vote by tribe members to revoke the freedmen's suffrage rights after three-fourths of voters favored doing so.
The Cherokee Nation has about 300,000 members, making it Oklahoma's largest tribe and one of the largest tribes in the U.S. About 2,800 freedmen held tribal rights after fighting for years to regain citizenship privileges that they believe were granted to them under the 1866 treaty, which gave the freedmen and their descendants "all the rights of native Cherokees."
Amid mounting pressure from the federal government, which included the freezing of $33 million in Cherokee funds by the Housing and Urban Development Department, the tribe's election commission decided to allow freedmen to cast provisional ballots for chief _ but said those votes would only count in the event of a court order.
"I hope the action today will allow those $33 million in HUD funds to be released to us," Cherokee Nation Acting Principal Chief S. Joe Crittenden said Tuesday. "It's a significant sum and the people at the Cherokee Nation who work in housing programs will not have to worry about the funding or services to our people." Additional requests for comment were not immediately returned Wednesday to The Associated Press.
Tuesday's agreement would count those votes and stipulate that a letter go out to other freedman by Thursday notifying them of their right to participate. It would also require the tribe to submit its election procedures immediately to the U.S. government for review and that no ballots be counted until the end of the extended election period.