WASHINGTON (AFP) – Native American Cherokees voted to expel descendants of black slaves from their tribe nation in a special election that has prompted charges of racism, according to returns made public early Sunday.
But a vote of 77 percent to 23 percent, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma adopted Saturday an amendment to their constitution that strips membership from so-called “Freedmen,” those descended from slaves once owned by Cherokees, blacks who were married to Cherokees and children of mixed-race families.
“The Cherokee people exercised the most basic democratic right, the right to vote,” Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, said in a statement. “Their voice is clear as to who should be citizens of the Cherokee Nation. No one else has the right to make that determination.”
However, opponents of the amendment say it was a racist project designed to deny the distribution of US government funds and tribal revenue to those with African-American heritage, US media reported.
“This is a sad chapter in Cherokee history,” Taylor Keen, a Cherokee tribal council member who opposes the amendment, told the New York Times.
“But this is not my Cherokee Nation. My Cherokee Nation is one that honors all parts of her past.”
Advocates of changing the 141-year-old treaty rules defining who is a Cherokee say the tribal nation has a sovereign right to decide citizenship and that other tribes base membership on blood lines.
The Cherokee Nation, which ranks as the second-largest tribe behind the Navajo, has some 250,000 to 270,000 members and is growing rapidly. Members are entitled to benefits from the US federal government and tribal services, including medical and housing aid and scholarships.
Cherokees, along with several other tribes, held black slaves and allied themselves with the Confederacy during the US civil war. After the war, the federal government in an 1866 treaty ordered the slaves freed.
In 1983, the Cherokee Nation expelled many descendants of slaves as members but a Cherokee tribunal ruled last year that the Freedmen were fully-fledged citizens with voting rights. That court decision prompted Saturday’s special vote.
Native American tribes recognized by the United States government have the right to self-determination and authority similar to US states.
Election results will remain unofficial until certified by the Cherokee Nation Election Commission, but officials said percentages were not expected to change significantly.