OKLAHOMA CITY — The Cherokee Nation vote to revoke the citizenship of the descendants of people the Cherokee once owned as slaves was a blow to people who have relied on tribal benefits.
Charlene White, a descendant of freed Cherokee slaves who were adopted into the tribe in 1866 under a treaty with the U.S. government, wondered Sunday where she would now go for the glaucoma treatment she has received at a tribal hospital in Stilwell.
“I’ve got to go back to the doctor, but I don’t know if I can go back to the clinic or if they’re going to oust me right now,” said White, 56, a disabled Tahlequah resident who lives on a fixed income.
In Saturday’s special election, more than 76 percent of voters decided to amend the Cherokee Nation’s constitution to remove the estimated 2,800 freedmen descendants from the tribal rolls, according to results posted Sunday on the tribe’s Web site.
Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, said the election results undoubtedly will be challenged.
“We will pursue the legal remedies that are available to us to stop people from not only losing their voting rights, but to receiving medical care and other services to which they are entitled under law,” Vann said Sunday.
“This is a fight for justice to stop these crimes against humanity.”
Results to be finalized March 12
Cherokee Nation spokesman Mike Miller said Sunday that election results will not be finalized until after a protest period that extends through March 12. Services currently being received by freedmen descendants will not immediately be suspended, he said.
“There isn’t going to be some sort of sudden stop of a service that’s ongoing,” Miller said. “There will be some sort of transition period so that people understand what’s going on.”
In a statement late Saturday, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith said he was pleased with the turnout and election result.
“Their voice is clear as to who should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation,” Smith said. “No one else has the right to make that determination. It was a right of self-government, affirmed in 23 treaties with Great Britain and the United States and paid dearly with 4,000 lives on the Trail of Tears.”
The petition drive for the ballot measure followed a March 2006 ruling by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court that said an 1866 treaty assured freedmen descendants of tribal citizenship.
Mirrors 2000 Seminole decision
A similar situation occurred in 2000 when the Seminole Nation voted to cast freedmen descendants out of its tribe, said attorney Jon Velie of Norman, an expert on Indian law who has represented freedmen descendants in previous cases.
“The United States, when posed the same situation with the Seminoles, would not recognize the election and they ultimately cut off most federal programs to the Seminoles,” Velie said. “They also determined the Seminoles, without this relationship with the government, were not authorized to conduct gaming.”
Ultimately, the Seminole freedmen were allowed back into the tribe, Velie said.
Velie said Saturday’s vote already has hurt the tribe’s public perception.
“It’s throwback, old-school racist rhetoric,” Velie said.
“And it’s really heartbreaking, because the Cherokees are good people and have a very diverse citizenship,” he said.
Miller, the tribal spokesman, defended the Cherokees against charges of racism, saying that Saturday’s vote showed the tribe was open to allowing its citizens vote on whether non-Indians be allowed membership.
“I think it’s actually the opposite. To say that the Cherokee Nation is intolerant or racist ignores the fact that we have an open dialogue and have the discussion, he said.
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