Cherokee Nation voters go to the polls today to decide the fate of membership of thousands of descendants of tribal slaves.
The election brings to a head a nearly 25-year challenge over whether to recognize the freedmen as full members of the 270,000-member tribe.
A yes vote — to keep out freedmen — could trigger federal intervention. A no vote could challenge the tribe’s administration when Principal Chief Chad Smith faces re-election in June.
Smith wrote in a letter to the editor in Friday’s Phoenix that “voting yes means non-Indians are out — and voting no means non-Indians stay in.”
However, the Justice Department says while it will allow today’s election to proceed, it might have the final say, depending on the outcome.
“Our future as an Indian tribe depends on your vote,” former Deputy Chief John Ketcher said while proposing passage of the tribal constitutional amendment. Ketcher says a yes vote means the Cherokee Nation will be an Indian tribe made up of Indians.
Cherokee historian David Cornsilk says the tribe does not have the authority to even bring the matter to a vote.
“What right does anyone have to tell a person, ‘I’m going to take away your heritage?’” Cornsilk said.
A little inkblot on a ballot will deny thousands of people their rights, if the amendment passes, Cornsilk said.
“I believe the federal government is going to have to intervene,” Cornsilk said, adding he believes that will happen if the amendment is passed.
“The Cherokee Nation does not have the right to revoke any voting rights of its citizens.”
Cherokee Councilor Taylor Keen said if the vote is yes there will be some grave circumstances. He referred to the Seminoles, who lost federal funding after a move to oust Seminole freedmen.
“Bottom line, if we violate this treaty, there will be legal continuum,” Taylor said. “If we do so, we put at risk our government-to-government relationship with the United States.”
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