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Controversial Cherokee chief loses re-election bid

By Steve Olafson

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - The Cherokee Indians' principal chief, who led a campaign to remove African-American slave descendants known as "freedmen" from the tribe, lost his re-election bid, according to unofficial vote totals Tuesday.

Chad "Corntassel" Smith, the long-time Cherokee chief, said in a message to supporters on Facebook he was "disappointed" but would await the certified election results issued by the tribe's election commission.

He has complained that an agreement with the federal government that allowed the so-called freedmen to vote was an election irregularity engineered to favor his opponent.

The Cherokee election commission, which has 48 hours to make the election vote official, said the tally showed Bill John Baker, a veteran Cherokee Tribal Councilman, with 10,633 votes and Smith with 9,099 votes.

About 150 "challenged ballots" that must be reviewed are not included in the count, the commission said.

The election was initially held June 25, but the tribe's supreme court ordered a new one after four recounts produced four different totals and two different winners.

When some 2,800 freedmen were kicked out of the tribe a month before the election by order of the tribe's supreme court, it set off furious allegations of dirty politics.

The freedmen eventually won back their tribal voting rights in an agreement reached in Washington, D.C., after the federal government told the tribe it would not recognize the election results or disburse a $33 million payment from the Department of Housing and Urban Development if the freedmen were not allowed to vote.

On Tuesday night, despite the apparent victory for the freedmen of the tribe, one of their leaders, Marilyn Vann, said she was cautious about celebrating.

"We'll see who's sworn in," Vann said. "There could be more skulduggery."

Vann pointed to a Cherokee supreme court order issued earlier on Tuesday, just hours before the election results were announced, that attacked the federal settlement that had enabled the freedmen to participate in the election.

The Cherokee justices said the federal court order that ensured the freedmen of voting rights and was later filed with the tribal court was "stricken, withdrawn and unenforceable."

The Cherokee justices, who were appointed by Smith, said they issued the order without a request from anyone.

Jon Velie, a lawyer for the freedmen, called the unexpected order "a desperate attempt to impact the election."

(Editing by Peter Bohan)

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