OKLAHOMA CITY -- Cherokee Nation members voted yesterday to revoke the tribal citizenship of an estimated 2,800 descendants of the people the Cherokee once owned as slaves.
With a majority of districts reporting, 76 percent had voted in favor of an amendment to the tribal constitution that would limit citizenship to descendants of "by blood" tribe members as listed on the federal Dawes Commission's rolls from more than 100 years ago.
The commission, set up by a Congress bent on breaking up Indians' collective lands and parceling them out to tribal citizens, drew up two rolls, one listing Cherokees by blood and the other listing freedmen, a roll of blacks regardless of whether they had Indian blood.
Some opponents of the ballot question contended that attempts to remove freedmen from the tribe were motivated by racism.
Tribal officials said the vote was a matter of self-determination.
"The importance of the vote today is that it gives the Cherokee people the opportunity to decide the citizenship of their nation," tribal spokesman Mike Miller said. "It's important that the Cherokee people themselves decide."
The petition drive for the ballot measure followed a March 2006 ruling by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court that said an 1866 treaty assured freedmen descendants of tribal citizenship. Since then, more than 2,000 freedmen descendants have enrolled as citizens of the tribe.
Court challenges by descendants of freedmen seeking to stop the election were denied, but a federal judge left open the possibility that the case could be filed again if Cherokees voted to lift their membership rights.