Cherokees ask for motion by freedmen descendants to be tossed 5-31-07

TULSA, Okla. (AP)
- A legal attempt by some descendants of people the Cherokee once owned as slaves to stop the tribe's general election next month should be tossed because they already have the right to vote, a motion filed this week by the Cherokee Nation argues.

Earlier this month, descendants of freed Cherokee slaves, commonly known as freedmen, filed a motion for preliminary injunction to stop the tribe's June 23 election, in which current Chief Chad Smith is running for re-election.

Based in Tahlequah, the Cherokee Nation occupies 14 counties in northeastern Oklahoma and is the largest tribe in the state, and the second largest in the U.S.

Cherokee officials say the freedmen are asking the court “to order relief (they) have already obtained,” because their full citizenship rights have been temporarily restored, making them eligible to vote in the upcoming election. A federal court hearing in Washington, D.C. is set for June 11.

“While the motion would also fail on its merits, there is no remaining case or controversy and there is nothing for this court to consider,” the tribe's motion filed late Tuesday states.

Another brief filed this week by The U.S. Department of the Interior, one of the defendants named in the freedmen motion, also opposes stopping the election, stating that it had “reviewed the tribal election procedures related to the election of the Principal Chief, and have approved them in advance of the election.”

“It certainly helps that the Department of Interior understands the Cherokee people have the right to vote and have these elections, and they should go on as scheduled,” said Mike Miller, a spokesman for the tribe.

In March, more than 76 percent of Cherokee voters decided in a special election to amend the nation's constitution to remove about 2,800 freedmen descendants and other non-Indians from the tribal rolls.

For decades, descendants of freed Cherokee slaves fought to reclaim their citizenship, even though they were adopted into the tribe in 1866 under a treaty with the U.S. government.

A ruling last year by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court held that the Cherokee constitution assured the freedmen's descendants of tribal citizenship.

That led to a petition drive for a ballot measure to determine who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Critics of the vote said it was hardly a mandate because only a fraction of the nation's 260,000 tribal citizens - about 9,000 - cast ballots. About 45,000 Cherokee were registered to vote in the election.

Two weeks ago, the nation's attorney general agreed to a temporary injunction in tribal court allowing the freedmen descendants to maintain their citizenship while they appeal the constitutionality of the election.

Jon Velie, the attorney for the freedmen in the federal case, called the tribe's temporary injunction an “11th-hour maneuver” one month before the election in order to give it the appearance of legitimacy.

“It's a temporary, second-class status that tribal leaders wholeheartedly intend to eliminate after they get through with the election,” he said.

But Miller said the nation is doing everything it can to make sure every reinstated non-Indian citizen votes on June 23, including reopening registration for 10 more days, mailing registration forms to reinstated citizens and inviting them to participate in the process.

“We know, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs has agreed, the way our election is set up is fair,” Miller said.