By Steve Olafson
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - A new principal chief of the nation's second-largest Indian tribe was sworn into office on Wednesday, replacing a man who led a campaign to remove African-American slave descendants from the Cherokee Nation.
Bill John Baker was sworn in on the steps of the Cherokee Nation Courthouse in Oklahoma after the tribe's Supreme Court rejected a final attempt to delay the ceremony until a federal court determines if black tribe members known as "freedmen" are entitled to citizenship.
Baker now heads one of the richest Native American tribes in the country.
The Cherokee operate a billion-dollar business empire of casinos, manufacturing and other interests in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma -- a far cry from their forced removal from the southeast United States in the 1830s to a place then known as Indian Territory.
The tribe's success, though, has been marred by political infighting, allegations of election tampering and an ongoing debate over the citizenship of the tribe's African-American "freedmen", the descendants of slaves owned by tribe members in the pre-Civil War era.
Baker, a furniture store owner and longtime tribal councilman, has promised to unite the tribe and focus on improved housing and health care for the 300,000 Cherokee.
"It's time to bring our Cherokee family together and move our nation from good to great," he said in statement.
The man he defeated, Chad "Corntassel" Smith, an attorney, had held the principal chief's position for 12 years.
The election that unseated him was unusual from the start. An initial election in June featured four recounts that yielded differing results. Charges of vote tampering were raised but never proven.
A new election was called for September. But before the vote, the Cherokee Supreme Court issued a ruling that banished 2,800 freedmen from the tribe, leading to allegations of political corruption.
The freedmen, backed by the federal government, say they are guaranteed tribal citizenship by the Treaty of 1866 with the U.S. government. But Smith and some other tribe members say all members should have an ancestral Indian blood link.
The freedmen eventually saw their voting rights temporarily restored in an out-of-court settlement, secured with the help of the federal government. The long-term status of citizenship for the freedmen remains at issue in federal court.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Cynthia Johnston)