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.