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Cherokee Freedmen encouraged by election of new chief

Freedmen, the descendants of slaves who also claim Cherokee roots, think Bill John Baker is sympathetic to their long struggle for tribal citizenship. But a court ruling could hurt their efforts.

October 12, 2011|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Bill John Baker speaks to media to announce the unofficial election results of the special Cherokee election in Tahlequah, Okla.
Bill John Baker speaks to media to announce the unofficial election results… (Jeff Lautenberger, Tulsa…)

A longtime Cherokee tribal councilman has won the race for chief of the Oklahoma-based tribe, according to unofficial results released Tuesday — an encouraging development for so-called Cherokee Freedmen battling for tribal citizenship.

The Freedmen, about 2,800 descendants of slaves who also claim Cherokee roots, have been embroiled in a legal battle with the tribe for decades concerning their tribal citizenship, which carries the right to vote and receive services, such as medical care at tribal clinics.

Some of the Freedmen consider the incoming chief, Bill John Baker, sympathetic to their cause. Baker captured nearly 54% of the vote of the more than 310,000-member Cherokee Nation, beating former Chief Chad Smith by 1,534 votes. Election officials were still reviewing 150 challenged ballots Tuesday, and had 48 hours to certify their results, but Baker called the victory decisive.

"It's time to bring the nation back together," he said.

It remained unclear, however, how Baker's election and a related court ruling handed down Tuesday would affect the Freedmen.

"We'll wait and see whether or not he becomes certified and recognized by the U.S. government as chief," said Marilyn Vann, president of the Oklahoma City-based nonprofit Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes.

Vann said she was troubled by a ruling by the Cherokee high court, handed down hours before the election results were released, that rejected a previous agreement that had allowed 1,233 Freedmen to vote in the election.

"Instead of simply working with the Freedmen, they always reach for, 'We're going to take away their voting rights,' " Vann said. "Are they going to count Freedmen votes? We may not know that right this second."

Diane Hammons, the tribe's attorney general, released a statement late Tuesday saying tribal leaders would respect the federal court order that had temporarily allowed Freedmen to vote, given that a federal case concerning Freedmen citizenship was still pending in district court in Oklahoma City.

"Although our Cherokee Supreme Court is our highest court, it cannot set aside a federal court order," Hammons wrote. "The Cherokee Nation is a nation of laws, and we pride ourselves on being true to those laws."

Baker vowed to abide by federal court rulings.

Smith, who has opposed granting Freedmen tribal citizenship, said he was not ready to concede the election late Tuesday.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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