Claremore Daily Progress

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September 20, 2011

Cherokee Nation cuts Freedmen deal

TAHLEQUAH — Cherokee citizens expecting to learn the unofficial results in the special election for principal chief this Saturday will now have to wait until Oct. 8.

A deal between the Cherokee Nation and descendants of Freedmen was reached Tuesday, shortly before a federal court judge was expected to rule in the case wherein the Freedmen were stripped of their tribal citizenship.

According to a preliminary report on the Freedmen hearing in Washington D.C., the descendants of former slaves will be allowed to vote in the Sept. 24 election, and are hereby reinstated as citizens of Cherokee Nation. The balloting period for election will be extended to allow time for the Freedmen to properly vote.

The court gave both parties until 10 a.m. today to produce a written agreement.

Sources attending Tuesday’s hearing indicated the election will continue as planned this Saturday, but that Freedmen will be allowed to cast ballots through 7 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 8. All citizens, with the exception of Freedmen, will need to vote by 7 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 24.

CN Acting Principal Chief S. Joe Crittenden said the agreement allows Saturday’s election to move forward.

“We have an agreement in principle that allows our election to go forward on Saturday, and extends the time for walk-in voting to Oct. 8 to allow Freedmen to fully participate,” said Crittenden.

He said he anticipated more information would be available when the final details of the order  are released today.

“When I was sworn in as chief, I swore to abide by the Cherokee Constitution and the U.S. Constitution,” said Crittenden. “I have asked Attorney General Diane Hammons to submit this order to the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court so that it may be recognized under tribal law. The main thing is to have an election that doesn’t violate tribal or federal law.”

Crittenden said the order should re-establish the “status quo” as it existed during the June and July elections. He said he is also extremely concerned about the federal funding that has been withheld.

“I hope the action today will allow those $33 million in HUD funds to be released,” said Crittenden. “It’s a significant sum, and the people at the Cherokee Nation who work in housing programs will not have to worry about the funding or services to our people.”

Crittenden said officials are still hammering out the details of the pact, but the key is to have the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognize the election.

“The nation’s government-to-government relationship has been preserved, as well as our funding,” said Crittenden. “These are important issues that were debated and resolved today, and thanks to our legal team, we’ve gotten past those and our election is moving forward.”

The tribe’s election commission has scheduled a meeting for 3 this afternoon to discuss the issue.

Principal chief candidate and District 1 Tribal Councilor Bill John Baker views the development as weakening the tribe’s sovereignty, and blames former Principal Chief Chad Smith, who is also a candidate in Saturday’s election.

“First, Smith and his Supreme Court failed when they tried to steal the election from the Cherokee people, and in desperation, demanded a new election,” said Baker. “Now after having six years to resolve the problem, they have bungled the Freedmen issue, and after spending a fortune of our money on their lawyers, we are back to where we started before the 2007 referendum. It’s truly time for Smith to go.”

Smith said the agreement violates the CN Supreme Court decision.

“The agreement in the federal court is in direct violation of the decision of the highest Cherokee Nation court that Freedmen are not citizens of the Cherokee Nation,” said Smith. “Bill John Baker’s attorney threatened the Election Commission to get his Freedmen supporters the right to vote, and to get them special treatment in this election. Now, thanks to his running-mate Joe Crittenden, he has gotten his way at the expense of Cherokee Nation’s sovereignty and the will of the Cherokee people. It looks for all the world like Baker is willing to sell out the Cherokee Nation to the BIA and non-Indian Freedmen descendants for a few votes. The BIA has continued its longtime regime of extortion of the Cherokee Nation without any authority of law, and the Cherokee people need a chief who has a proven track record of standing up to the BIA to support our rights as a nation, not one who will back down at the first BIA threat.”

During a recent Cherokee Nation Election Commission meeting, Paula Ragsdale, a Smith supporter and CN employee, asked CNEC Chairwoman Susan Plumb if Kalyn Free, a Baker supporter and attorney, had threatened a lawsuit if Freedmen were not allowed to vote. Plumb said she had not viewed anything Free had said as any kind of a threat.

Crittenden ran as an independent candidate for deputy chief in the general election. Smith’s running mate was Chris Soap; Baker did campaign with a running mate. Crittenden assumed the helm as acting chief when the original chief’s election was deemed flawed.

The Freedmen case is being heard by Judge Henry H. Kennedy, and on Tuesday, Freedmen filed supplemental documents in support of the motion for preliminary injunction. The motion names Ken Salazar, secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior; the U.S. Department of the Interior; and S. Joe Crittenden in his official capacity as acting chief of the Cherokee Nation, as defendants. The motion seeks to have the federal defendants barred from distributing funds to the Cherokee Nation, recognizing any Cherokee Nation election, and recognizing government-to-government relations with the Cherokee Nation.

In Tuesday’s filing, Freedmen indicated recent attempts by the tribe to allow Freedmen to cast “challenge ballots” in the Sept. 24 special election for principal chief are “confusing at best.”

Last week, the Cherokee Nation Election Commission approved expediting  approximately 350 absentee ballots to Freedmen who voted in the June 25 election, and provided that other Freedmen who are registered could vote challenge ballots at their respective precincts this Saturday.

“As the Cherokee Freedmen have argued, distributing absentee ballots, but at the same time informing Freedmen citizens that their votes might not be counted, causes irreparable harm to the Freedmen by depriving them of their full voting rights,” states the filing. “It is now evident that the Cherokee Nation has further deprived Freedmen citizens of their voting rights by sending communications to Freedmen citizens that are confusing at best and that do not permit the Freedmen to exercise fully their voting rights.”

According to court documents, a letter sent by the CNEC to some Freedmen states: “The first requirement for being an eligible voter is citizenship. The Cherokee Nation Supreme Court has ruled that Freedmen do not have citizenship.”

The filing also indicates at least one Freedman who attempted to participate in early voting at CNEC offices found the process to be a hardship.

“Plaintiff Charlene White, a Freedmen citizen of the Cherokee Nation, cast her ballot during early voting at the Cherokee Election Commission on Sept. 17, but experienced a hostile environment that would strongly discourage other Freedmen from voting,” states the court document.

Approximately 2,800 Freedmen were stripped of Cherokee Nation citizenship by the tribe’s Supreme Court on Aug. 22, which ruled a 2007 Constitutional amendment requiring citizens be able to trace a family member to the Dawes Rolls is valid.

Since then, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has denied the tribe $33 million in housing funding, and the Interior Department issued a letter stating it would no longer recognize any actions conducted by the tribe, presumably including the upcoming election. Both agencies cite the Freedmen decision as the reason for action.

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