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Politics
Bush administration questions Cherokees on Freedmen


The Bush administration is again questioning whether the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma excluded the Freedmen from participating in the tribe.

In an August 30 letter, associate deputy Interior secretary Jim Cason said African-American descendants may have been wrongly denied a vote in a recent tribal election. He told Cherokee Chief Chad Smith that the rights of the Freedmen should be addressed in light of pending amendments to the tribal constitution.

The constitution was approved by Cherokee citizens in 2003. It was submitted to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal review but officials questioned why the Freedmen, descendants of African slaves, were denied a vote.

At the time, Smith threatened to bring a prominent delegation of Cherokee officials, including former chief Wilma Mankiller, to Washington if the constitution wasn't approved. He sought high-level intervention because he claimed a regional official in Oklahoma showed a "patronizing and very paternalistic" attitude towards the tribe.

Three years later, Smith dropped his campaign. He said a decision from the Cherokee Nation's top court gave the tribe the ability to change its constitution "without interference from outsiders."

But in the letter, Cason refuted Smith's interpretation and said the new constitution has not received federal approval. He cited a different tribal court decision that required the Cherokee Nation to accept the Freedmen as citizens.

"The Allen decision suggests that not all persons who were entitled to membership in the nation were considered eligible to vote in the 2003 elections, which purported to adopt the constitutional amendments," Cason wrote, referring to the Freedmen ruling.

Cason's letter is significant because the BIA would have to reject the constitution if the Freedmen weren't allowed to vote. The agency was prepared to take that step until Smith, back in the summer of 2003, sought the help of former deputy Interior secretary J. Steven Griles, who was Cason's boss.

There isn't anything in the record to indicate Griles did anything to help the tribe. But Smith claims that former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb, a member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, approved the tribal constitution.

Cason, however, said that wasn't the case either. "While we can appreciate Mr. McCaleb clarifying what he intended, his stated intention is not an adequate substitute for the necessary action of actual approval," the letter reads.

The Chickasaws also have Freedmen citizens, though not as many as the Cherokees.

The issue is crucial because the 2003 constitution would eliminate the need to submit future amendments to the BIA. The tribe could permanently block Freedmen from citizenship without recourse from federal agencies.

The Seminole Nation tried to do that with its constitution. But the BIA forced the tribe to accept its Freedmen after cutting all federal funds.

The BIA regional office in eastern Oklahoma was taking the same position on the Cherokee constitution before Smith took his complaints to Washington, where Ross Swimmer, a Cherokee citizen, holds one of the highest offices at the Interior Department.

Advocates for the Freedmen say Swimmer, when he served as chief in the late 1970s and early 1980s, also tried to keep the Freedmen from participating in the tribe.

Since the Allen decision this past March, more than 1,000 Freedmen have regained citizenship in the tribe. But some tribal members are circulating a petition to change the constitution to block the Freedmen.

The constitution does not contain a blood quantum requirement and membership is open to Cherokee, Delaware, Shawnee or Freedmen descendants whose ancestors appeared on the Dawes Roll. Smith and others have called for the Cherokees to be an "Indian" nation, by blood.

Cason Letter:
Cherokee Nation Constitution (August 30, 2006)

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

Relevant Links:
Freedmen Of The Five Civilized Tribes - http://www.freedmen5tribes.com
Freedmen Conference - http://www.freedmenconference.com