By Donna Hales
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.”
The Bureau of Indian Affairs could re-examine the trust relationship with the Cherokees, Taylor said.
“I think that’s going to happen. If they don’t, I think (the federal judge presiding over the freedmen case) will.”
A recent federal court filing gives credence to those predictions.
Federal attorneys said if the amendment passes today that federal defendants “will review the ramifications on its trust responsibilities at that time.”
The filing also said at this time the tribe decided to hold a special election but, “has not officially altered its position with regard to the rights of the freedmen.”
Cornsilk said the election may not settle anything because of federal oversight, and it will be harmful to the tribe’s reputation.
“It will expose an ugly truth about the Cherokee people — a racial undertone that has festered in our tribe since the Civil War,” Cornsilk said. “We have never been forced to look at our racist, slave-holding past.”
Keen said he’s been refused permission to speak to Cherokee meetings here and in other states because he is against the amendment. He is an “at-large” councilor, and his constituents are in many areas.
Smith told The Associated Press earlier this month that his tribe’s conflict over citizenship is not about politics or race.
“It’s just a fundamental right of sovereignty ... to not only determine your own future, but to determine your own identity.”
Freedmen spokeswoman Marilyn Vann believes otherwise — saying it’s a political move because Smith knows he would have a hard time getting the freedmen vote.
Vann said many freedmen traced their Indian heritage and testified about it at the time they were placed on the freedmen rolls of the Dawes Commission. Also on those rolls are white people whose descendants are not being booted out, Vann said.
Cornsilk said the proponents of the constitutional amendment are lying when they say freedmen have no Cherokee blood.
“The number of Cherokee slave owners who had children by their slaves is tremendous,” Cornsilk said.
“If we’re going to vote people out of the tribe — who’s next? There is one word difference in blood and blood quantum.”
There is no minimum of degree of blood required to be a member of the Cherokee Nation. A Cherokee’s degree of Cherokee blood is not supposed to affect citizenship, Cornsilk said.
The Cherokee with the least amount of Indian blood is 1/4096, he said.
“The most common is 1/16 and 1/32,” he said. “Are we looking to remove these people? We’re on a slippery slope here.”
Vann said fear tactics are being used to pass the amendment.
Ketcher is quoted in flyers proposing the ouster of the freedmen, saying a no vote means approximately 25,000 non-Indians will be eligible to use the Indian hospitals and clinics, receive housing and education scholarships and Indian preference in contracting and employment.
“That’s not true,” said Mary Crain of Tahlequah, a freedman registered as a Cherokee citizen. “He is trying to scare people, and a lot of people don’t understand.”
Dr. Dan F. Littlefield Jr., an expert on the freedmen who is director of the American Native Press Archives at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, said the Cherokees are not doing much for their reputation as a people. He said there seems to be a deliberate or ignorant distortion about the freedmen and their relationship to the Cherokee Nation.
He added the freedmen may have made a mistake in not arguing more on their treaty rights.
Some distortions include saying the freedmen never voted and were never really citizens, “and that’s just not right,” Littlefield said.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday for the Cherokee Nation special election.
Cherokee citizens registered to vote in the election should have received a new voter registration card, listing their district number and precinct number along with a code letter, which identifies the actual voting location for the upcoming special election.
Letter A, library of Sequoyah Schools, 17091 S. Muskogee Ave. in Tahlequah.
Letter B, Keys High School cafeteria, 26622 S. 520 Road in Keys.
Letter C, old Hulbert Fire Department, 111 E. Main St., in Hulbert.
Letter D, Briggs School, 17210 S. 569 Road, Tahlequah.
Letter E, Lowery School, 21132 E. 640 Road, Tahlequah.
Letter A, Wilma P. Mankiller Clinic, Oklahoma 51 east, Stilwell.
Letter B, Westville School, U.S. 62 and Park Street, Westville.
Letter C, Cave Springs School, Oklahoma 17, Bunch.
Letter D, Bell School, Bell/Salem Road, Stilwell.
Letter A, Vian Senior Citizens Center at 109 S. Blackstone, Vian.
Letter B, Marble City Hall, 416 Main St., Marble City.
Letter C, First United Methodist Church, 2100 McGee, Sallisaw.
Letter D, Muldrow Middle School, 713 W. Shawntell Smith Blvd., Muldrow.
Letter A, Warner Middle School, 1012 Fifth Ave., Warner.
Letter B, Fort Gibson City Hall, 200 W. Popular Ave.
Letter C, Okay Senior Citizen Center, 3701 E. 75th St. North.
Letter A, Community Center – Senior Citizen Center at 201 S.W. First St., Afton.
Letter B, Grove Community Center, 104 W. Third St., Grove.
Letter C, Delaware County Community Center, 429 Ninth St., Jay.
Kenwood voters, Kenwood Community Center, Salina.
Letter E, Kansas Community Center, l01 S. Cherokee St., Kansas.
Letter A, Agriculture Building, Pryor Fairgrounds, Old Oklahoma 20, Pryor.
Letter B, AMO Community Clinic, 900 N. Owen Walters Blvd., Salina.
Letter C, Locust Grove City Hall, 109 E. Ross St., Locust Grove.
Letter A, Claremore VFW, 1717 W. DuPont, Claremore.
Letter B, Chelsea Senior Citizens Center, 618 Pine St., Chelsea.
Letter A, Keeler Heights Community Building, 11003 S. Virginia, Bartlesville.
Letter B, Maxwell Park Library at 1313 N. Canton, Tulsa.
Letter C, Collinsville Library, 1223 W. Main, Collinsville.
Letter A, Tom Buffington Heights, 900 McNelis, #31-B, Vinita.
Letter B, Cherokee Nation Community Building, 215 Oklahoma St., South Coffeyville.
Letter C, Senior Citizens Building, 238 N. Maple St., Nowata.