By Steve Olafson
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - Cherokee Indians, including African-American tribal citizens who nearly lost their right to vote, cast ballots on Saturday in elections for principal chief of the nation's second largest Native American tribe.
The black Cherokees, known as freedmen because they are descendants of slaves once owned by wealthy Indians, were reinstated as tribal members earlier this week following pressure from the U.S. federal government.
"I'm just overjoyed," said Marilyn Vann, a freedmen leader from Oklahoma City, who was driving 160 miles to her voting precinct south of Coffeeville, Oklahoma. "I can hardly wait to put the ballot into the machine."
Others, like Cara Cowan-Watts, a member of the Cherokee Tribal Council, were angry.
"It's disconcerting," she said, criticizing the tribe's acting principal chief for not consulting the tribal council before making a deal to let the freedmen vote.
Voting on Saturday took place in 14 counties of northeast Oklahoma that comprise the Cherokee Nation. Results of the election are scheduled to be announced on October 8.
Some 2,800 Cherokee freedmen were kicked out of the tribe in August when the Cherokee Supreme Court upheld a tribal referendum to revoke the citizenship of those who could not prove an ancestral Indian blood link.
But the tribe's acting principal chief agreed to restore the freedmen's voting rights after a federal judge in Washington convened an injunction hearing on September 20.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs had threatened to not recognize Saturday's election after the Cherokee Supreme Court ruled last month that the tribe had the right to change its constitution on citizenship. The Department of Housing and Urban Development also withheld $33 million in disbursement.
CITIZENSHIP ISSUE HAS LINGERED
Unlike other Cherokee voters, the freedmen will be allowed to vote on subsequent days if they don't vote on Saturday, according to the out-of-court settlement.
The matter of tribal citizenship has lingered for years.
The federal government maintains the freedmen belong in the tribe because the Treaty of 1866 required freed Cherokee-held slaves to be tribal citizens. At the time, the Cherokee lived outside the United States in what was then called Indian Territory and later became the state of Oklahoma.
But many tribal leaders said the tribe alone should have the right to determine its own citizenship requirements.
The 300,000 member tribe generates $500 million a year in gambling, hospitality, personnel services, distribution, manufacturing, telecommunications and environmental services revenues.
Tribal officials say they make an annual profit of about $100 million. Among the benefits of tribal citizenship is health care.
Despite the controversy, incumbent Principal Chief Chad Smith, who has led the campaign to require a Cherokee blood link for citizenship, said he was confident of reelection.
Smith, 60, said he didn't think the restored freedmen vote would have a major effect on the election's outcome because they didn't support him in the previous election on June 25, when results were so close that four recounts were conducted.
The recounts showed Smith winning twice and his challenger, Tribal Councilman Joe Don Baker, winning twice. The Cherokee Supreme Court then decided a new election should be held. The tribe is currently being led by an acting chief pending results of the vote.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)