Judge tosses motion to stop Cherokee general election 6-13-07

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - A federal judge denied Wednesday a motion to stop the Cherokee Nation's June 23 general election brought by descendants of people the tribe once owned as slaves. Last month, descendants of freed Cherokee slaves, commonly known as freedmen, filed a motion for preliminary injunction to stop the tribe's election, in which current Chief Chad Smith is running for re-election.

U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. denied the injunction on the grounds a Cherokee tribal court reinstated the freedmen descendants the right to vote last month and the Bureau of Indian Affairs had approved the upcoming election.

“We have said that this group's effort to stop the election was a remedy in search of a wrong, as all eligible non-Indian Freedmen citizens of the Cherokee Nation can vote in this election,” said Principal Chief Smith in a statement. “We're also pleased that his decision respects our tribal court decisions and the more than 300 non-Indian Freedmen who won a ruling in our tribal court to participate in the June 23 election.”

But Marilyn Vann, president of the Oklahoma City-based Descendants of Freedmen of Five Civilized Tribes, said she was surprised by the decision and said the freedmen are being treated unequally.

“If there was any election where any other group of people were severely limited in being able to go to the polls and exercise their legal right, I think everyone would be up in arms,” Vann said.

In March, 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.

About two weeks after the freedmen descendants filed their motion, 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.

An attorney for the freedmen in the federal case called the temporary injunction an “11th-hour maneuver” to give the election an appearance of legitimacy.

Vann called the upcoming election “illegal,” but pledged that “the freedmen people are planning to participate in the election to work for the election of the best candidates.”

Principal Chief Smith said the issue had nothing to do with race and “everything to do with who can be an Indian in an Indian tribe and the proper exercise of our sovereignty to define our citizens.”

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.