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Will Cherokee Freedmen Gain Tribal Rights?

The newly elected chief may leave it to the courts to decide whether to grant descendants citizenship.

Chief C.W. Long Bow (right) of the Cherokee Nation in New Jersey in 2004
(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Like other descendants of Cherokee Freedmen, ancestors who were once the tribe's slaves, I am cheered that longtime Chief Chad Smith lost the recent election. Smith has crusaded against the treaty-guaranteed rights of freedmen descendants to be citizens of the Cherokee Nation, eligible to vote in tribal elections and receive any health, housing and other benefits that status confers.

Chief-elect Bill John Baker, who has served in the tribal congress, looks to be fairer. He has demurred from directly endorsing freedmen's rights but has stated that he will abide by whatever the court of last jurisdiction decides. He knows and we know that will be a federal court, which is likely to uphold the 1866 treaty that insisted freedmen and their descendants "shall have all the rights of native Cherokee." A U.S. District Court in Washington has already found that the treaty remains in effect.

"It's time for the healing to begin," Baker told Oklahoma's Tahlequah Daily Press, when certified election results were released showing him winning 54 percent to 46 percent over Smith, who had been principal chief for a dozen years. The candidates were separated by 1,600 votes. Baker was sworn in as principal chief on Oct. 19.

The special election, which saw voting end Oct. 8, was a replay of the regular election in June. The ballot count in the first vote was so confused that each candidate was on top at different points. The tribe's top court wisely ordered that the election be done over because accurately determining the winner was not possible.

Since 2007 I have written a number of articles advocating for freedmen's rights. The first was so pointed that Smith publicly blamed the column for shaping black opinion on the subject.

My maternal grandmother was enrolled as a Cherokee Freedmen in 1901, and since I was a little boy I have listened to relatives from that side of the family talk about life among the tribe. Smith tried to obliterate that history, and the tribal connection of other freedmen descendants, by declaring in 2007 that blood Cherokee don't even know who we are.

Several months after he made that statement to the Washington Post, I confronted Smith at the Unity: Journalists of Color conference in Chicago and told him that if his observation is true, then blood Cherokees don't know their tribe's history, the legacy of which endures to this day.

Marilyn Vann is the leader of the freedmen's association. It's not a coincidence that her last name is the same as the biggest Cherokee slaveholder's. The surname of the tribe's longest-serving chief is part of the hyphenated name of my family's cemetery in Oklahoma.

As strongly as I feel about this issue, I didn't vote in either election, so any contribution I made to Smith's defeat was indirect. I'm not an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, even though it's my birthright. I didn't take advantage of a narrow window in 2006-2007 when freedmen descendants were allowed to enroll by submitting a chain of birth certificates ending with that of someone whose name appears on a census of the tribe that the federal government conducted in the early 1900s. That census is known as the Dawes Rolls.

Just look at what has happened in the past five years. In 2006 the Cherokee Supreme Court declared that freedmen descendants were indeed citizens. In. The next year, Smith, then chief, orchestrated a referendum that kicked freedmen out of the tribe. Out.