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Leadership dispute moves forward

WEWOKA, Okla. ? The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma moved forward in federal court on a two-year struggle over who is in charge and who are its members this week.

U.S. District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled, July 31, on a motion filed by Susan Williams, attorney for Jerry Haney, to intervene in a case filed by Ken Chambers, who says he was elected principle chief last year and the tribe has its own membership requirements.

"We also requested a court order to have the BIA authorize and perhaps supervise a new election that will include the Freedmen," said Williams.

"We moved to expedite the hearings to avoid further violence, and fines from the National Indian Gaming Commission," Williams continued.

Haney is requesting the BIA to recognize him as the only lawfully elected chief and is asking the court to rule that government-to-government relations be conducted with his administration.

"My full reason for doing this is to do what's right," said Haney.

He charges Chambers' election was illegal because he was voted into office without Freedmen votes. Haney says he is the rightful leader of the Seminoles and is presently working out of his home, while Chambers occupies tribal offices.

Chambers was elected into office after the General Council passed a referendum that changed the status of Freedmen so that they were not able to vote or hold positions on the council.

The BIA also ruled the election illegal and refused to acknowledge Chambers. But Chambers filed suit as well and both parties have been in litigation in the federal court system, the BIA and the Department of the Interior.

"I think that once the court hears my side," explained Haney, "they'll do what is right put me back in."

Haney wants the courts to recognize the old council with the Freedmen reinstated. He said he

also wants a new election and the Seminole government to revert back to the old constitution.

Freedmen are descendants of former slaves owned by Seminoles or who escaped slavery and lived in communities with or near Seminoles in Florida, prior to forced relocation. They were granted citizenship in the Seminole Nation under an 1866 treaty with the U.S.

Since the dispute erupted, one tribal member suffered a beating and two were arrested in connection.

Most federally funded social programs were suspended. Casinos and shops were losed for a week.

The four casinos that re-opened are operating illegally according to Williams, who says they could be subject to hefty penalties.

Haney's motion is the latest in a series of civil and legal actions and reactions involving tribal sovereignty, race relations, money and history which has become a convoluted tangle of issues resulting in violence and accusations of prejudice levied toward the General Council and the Seminole Nation.

Legal battles began in August 2000 with a referendum vote approving nine constitutional amendments that would institute wide changes in Seminole membership and government functions. Among the changes was a requirement redefining tribal membership to include a one-eighth quantum of Seminole blood.

The blood quantum stipulation disallows Freedmen from participating in the General Council and in tribal elections.

The BIA rejected all amendments and the Seminole Nation sued in federal court.

Questions about who is and who is not a member of the tribe have been debated for decades. The council sought to iron out this long-standing ambiguity even before Chambers was elected.

"When we saw applications (for tribal membership) with 1/127 blood quantum, the council decided to take action," Haney said in an earlier interview with Indian Country Today.

According to Jane McKane, an enrollment officer at that time, the council felt the tribe was enrolling people without Indian blood and who were not interested in the tribe.

Enrollment requests had steadily increased in response to a $56-million land-claim settlement award for land taken from the Seminoles by the U.S. military in the mid-1800s. Money from the claim was earmarked for community services and once news of additional services became public, membership applications swelled.

"Emotion is just blinding people in this issue, it's a very sad and unfortunate situation, going on too long," said Dr. Patricia Wickman, director of the Seminole Tribe of Florida's Department of Anthropology and Genealogy. Wickman is an ethnohistorian and has been working with the Seminole Tribe of Florida since 1992.

She said confusion about tribal identity stems from the fact the Seminoles accepted a treaty in 1866 with vague language. Although the treaty was presented to all five of the "Civilized Tribes," only the Seminoles kept Article 2 of the treaty intact, which covers slaves, slavery and Freedmen citizenship.

Chambers feels the situation is a catch-22.

"We have to prove to the bureau that we have ancestry," he explains. Freedmen carry a CDIB or tribal identity card, but it has no blood quantum. Seminole people must have a specified degree of blood to be issued an identity card.

In the debate over entitlements, an overlooked detail of the Seminole land settlement is that it was awarded to landowners.

"Congress ruled in 1823 that the Freedmen were not land owners in Florida," said Chambers, "people are getting confused."

Mary Ann Emarthla, Chaney's assistant chief, feels that the BIA is the problem. "If they would let us do our own business we could settle this thing."

"It's the U.S. government that has chosen to meddle in the politics of the Seminoles and Freedmen," agrees Wickman. "It's what has been going on in 2002, 1802, 1502."