Vote to remove freedmen not yet approved

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TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) - A vote by the Cherokee Nation to revoke the membership of descendants of freed slaves has not received approval from the federal government, according to a letter received by the tribe in late March.

Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith was informed of the decision in a letter from Carl J. Artman, the new BIA assistant secretary, dated March 28.

''Due to ongoing concerns about the rights of the freedmen, the Department of the Interior is still studying the issues in this evolving matter,'' Artman wrote in the letter, which was given to tribal councilors in a meeting March 30.

More than 7,000 Cherokee voters approved a constitutional amendment March 3 that would remove about 2,700 freedmen descendants from the tribe's rolls - and therefore eliminate their eligibility for medical and other services provided by the tribe.

Artman's letter also noted that the federal agency hadn't made any administrative action on a 2003 amendment to the Cherokee constitution.

''We appreciate notification from the BIA, but it's been four years since they offered to give their opinion on our 2003 constitution and it may be four more before they do,'' Smith said in a statement.

''Regardless of what advice they may eventually give in the future regarding the constitution, the Cherokee courts and the Cherokee people have spoken, and the 2003 constitution is in place,'' Smith said.

Smith also said that the 2003 amendment eliminates the requirement that the tribe get federal approval for the vote to remove the freedmen's tribal membership.

The freedmen vote has been challenged by more than two dozen members of the Congressional Black Caucus and by the National Congress of Black Women. BIA spokesman Nedra Darling said a response to the lawmakers remains in draft form.

Should the Cherokees lose a federal court battle regarding the vote, the tribe could lose federal funding. The Cherokee Nation operates on an annual budget of approximately $300 million, about 80 percent of that federal funding.

Interior eliminated federal funding for several Seminole Nation programs after a similar election in 2000, but Seminole Nation Attorney General Jennifer McBee said, ''The Cherokee litigation has some highly distinguishable points from where we were.''