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Cherokee Nation holds election amid national scrutiny

Voters of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma went to the polls on Saturday and re-elected Chad Smith to a third term as chief of the second largest tribe in the country.

Unofficial results showed Smith with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Challenger Stacy Leeds, a former tribal court justice, received 41 percent in an election that attracted national attention.

"I am pleased that we ran such a good race and I have no regrets," Leeds said on her campaign website after she phoned Smith to congratulate him on his victory.

During the race, Smith and Leeds squared off on economic development, health care, gaming and other issues facing the tribe. But what attracted scrutiny actually happened months ago, when Cherokee voters revoked the citizenship the Freedmen, the descendants of African slaves, in March.

Smith defended the move, calling it an exercise of the tribe's inherent right to define its identity. Leeds also believed such decisions belonged to voters, though she wrote the tribal court decision that said the Freedmen were entitled to membership.

Amid controversy, the Freedmen were reinstated in order to participate in Saturday's election but their fate, as well as the fate of the tribe, remains in doubt. Congress, tribal and federal courts and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are all considering the legality of the ouster of an estimated 2,800 African descendants.

Just two days before the election, Rep. Diane Watson (D-California) introduced legislation to cut the Cherokee Nation's federal funding and revoke federal approval of the tribe's gaming operations. Only until the Freedmen are fully reinstated would the tribe regain funding and be able to reopen its casinos.

Watson was joined by several African-American members of Congress but also by Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa), a member of the Congressional Native American Caucus. Faleomavaega has been a consistent supporter of Indian issues during his time in the House.

Meanwhile, the Freedmen and the tribe are involved in two major court cases. In the first, tribal court system is hearing appeals by the Freedmen against the March 3 election that ousted them from the tribe.

In the second, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., is considering the rights of the Freedmen. Judge Henry H. Kennedy has already blasted the tribe for what he said was a history of marginalization against citizens of African descent.

The BIA has largely stayed out of the fray and government lawyers have called the dispute an intra-tribal matter that should not be handled in the federal courts. But assistant secretary Carl Artman has urged the tribe to respect an 1866 treaty that recognized the rights of the Freedmen.

Last month, Artman reiterated the BIA's role in reviewing any changes that Cherokee voters make to the tribe's constitution. He rejected a 2003 amendment that sought to cut the agency out of the process for two main reasons -- he said the Freedmen didn't vote in that election and that their subsequent removal was an "apparent violation" of the treaty.

In response, the tribe added the same amendment to Saturday's ballot. According to the unofficial results of the election, it passed with 63 percent of the vote.

The approval sets up another showdown with the BIA over federal oversight. Back in 2003, at least one official -- Janette Hanna, the agency's director for the Eastern Oklahoma region -- planned to reject the amendment because she said it would have disenfranchised the Freedmen.

In an interview last month, Artman described the agency's rejection of the 2003 amendment as "administerial" in nature and said it would not alter the flow of federal funding to the Cherokee Nation. That differed from the BIA's treatment of the Seminole Nation, which lost funding when it tried to deny citizenship to the Freedmen.

Another letter on Friday reaffirmed the BIA's views. Jerry Gidner, a deputy director in Washington, D.C., said the agency will continue to provide funding to the tribe "unless otherwise directed by a federal court or federal legislation."

In addition to re-electing Smith, his running mate Joe Grayson Jr., and approving the constitutional amendment, Cherokee voters elected 14 members of the tribal council. Two more seats will be decided in a run-off scheduled for July 28.

Election Results:
General Election (June 23, 2007)

BIA Letters:
June 22, 2007 | May 21, 2007 | March 28, 2007 | August 30, 2006

Sovereign Immunity Court Decision:
Vann v. Kempthorne (December 19, 2006)

Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal Decision in Freedmen Case:
Allen v. Cherokee Nation (March 7, 2006)

Relevant Links:
Cherokee Nation -
Freedmen Of The Five Civilized Tribes -
Freedmen Conference -