By Steve Olafson
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - The Cherokee nation, the second-largest tribe in the country, will have a new principal chief for the first time in 12 years as challenger Bill John Baker ousted the incumbent chief, the tribe's election commission certified on Wednesday.
Baker, 59, received just under 54 percent of the vote, final returns showed. The incumbent, 60-year-old Chad "Corntassel" Smith, who had led the tribe for 12 years, has until October 24 to file an appeal with the Cherokee supreme court to challenge the results.
The Cherokee election has been unusual from the start. The initial election on June 25 featured four recounts with differing results. After the tribe's supreme court ordered a new vote on September 24, it ruled that about 2,800 African-American members were expelled and could not vote.
The so-called African American freedmen supported the challenger because of Chief Smith's efforts to ban the descendants of Cherokee-held slaves from citizenship.
The freedmen believe they are guaranteed tribal citizenship by the Treaty of 1866 with the U.S. government. Smith and some other Cherokee believe members should have an ancestral Indian blood link.
The freedmen eventually regained their voting rights with the help of the federal government, which withheld funds from the tribe to pressure it into an out-of-court settlement. But the issue of the status of the freedmen is expected to remain an issue in the courts.
Baker said the freedmen vote "didn't play a big role" in his election because of his margin of victory.
"But I appreciate every vote I got," he said. "It's a wonderful day and a long time coming."
The election commission said the final total showed Baker with 10,703 votes and Smith with 9,128.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)