Judge says Cherokees violate voting rights, extends election

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 27, 2011 6:38 PM
Judge says Cherokees violate voting rights, extends election

By Steve Olafson

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - A federal judge ruled that the Cherokees violated the voting rights of African-American members of the nation's second-largest Indian tribe, and he ordered an extension to the voting for chief.

Five extra voting days were added by Washington-based U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr for all tribe members, not just the group known as the "freedmen," who are the African-American descendants of Cherokee-held slaves during the pre-Civil War era.

The ruling followed a Cherokee tribal decision to revoke the membership rights of the African-Americans, saying they were not Cherokee by blood. The freedmen say they were granted tribal membership by a 19th century treaty with the U.S. government, and filed suit against the Cherokees in federal court.

Allowing both black and Indian Cherokees to take advantage of the extended voting days is designed to "start the healing process," said Jon Velie, a freedmen attorney.

"We want this racial schism to end," he told Reuters.

Some 2,800 Cherokee freedmen were kicked out of the tribe in August when the Cherokee Supreme Court upheld a tribal referendum to revoke the citizenship of those who could not prove an ancestral Indian blood link.

They won back membership in time to participate in the election last Saturday of a new principal chief.

The night before the election, the freedmen attorneys charged the tribe violated the court order by failing to meet a September 21 deadline to mail absentee ballots and written notification to freedmen voters.

The judge agreed, but chose not to find the tribe in contempt of court in the order he signed Monday night, Velie said.

The Cherokee election commission chairwoman said the tribe had done its best to meet the tight deadline to notify freedmen voters.

The federal government has sided with the freedmen over the citizenship fight, maintaining the Treaty of 1866 guaranteed tribal citizenship for Cherokee-held slaves and their descendants. Some Cherokee who lived in the U.S. South owned slaves and brought them to what became Oklahoma.

Tribal leaders said the tribe alone should have the right to determine its own citizenship requirements.

The federal government withheld a $33 million housing disbursement and threatened not to accept the principal chief election results if the tribe did not restore voting rights.

More than 8,700 Cherokees voted on Saturday and about 1,100 cast ballots during early voting in the 14 counties of northeast Oklahoma that comprise the Cherokee Nation, the tribe's election commission said.

The election results are scheduled to be announced after the last votes are cast on October 8.

The 300,000-member tribe generates $500 million a year in gambling, hospitality, personnel services, distribution, manufacturing, telecommunications and environmental services revenues.

Tribal officials say they make an annual profit of about $100 million. Among the benefits of tribal citizenship is health care.

(Edited by Karen Brooks and Greg McCune)