New constitution remains on hold

By Travis Snell
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - Sometimes no news is good news. But regarding the Bureau of Indian Affairs' decision whether to certify Cherokee Nation's amendment question in the May 24 general election, it's not.

Todd Hembree, vice chairman of the CN Constitution Convention Commission, said there is no new news regarding the BIA and its decision on whether to certify the citizens' vote that removes Article XV, Section 10 in the 1976 CN Constitution.

The article requires federal approval for any amendments or changes to the tribe's current constitution. Cherokee citizens voted to eliminate the federal approval clause May 24.

Julian Fite, general counsel for the tribe, said the BIA has still not certified that election and that its lack of action may be based on the recent Cherokee Freedmen lawsuit filed against the Department of Interior. The Freedmen are asking the BIA to overturn recent tribal elections and appoint a trustee to oversee Freedmen rights. The Freedmen claim they were denied the right to vote.

CN officials said earlier this year that none of the Freedmen plaintiffs ever tried to register for the May 24 tribal election.

"They (BIA) are still jacking around," Fite said. "We're talking to them, but there has been no movement on that (election certification). It all seems to be tied to their concern about the Freedmen issues that have been bouncing around. They've given us no timetable. They just haven't done anything."

Hembree said he also didn't know why the BIA is taking so long to certify the election.

"We are still waiting from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that has not certified the first election process, and I really don't know what needs to be certified," he said. "I think it's clear that Cherokee people voted on it and it passed."

He said the tribe should "pressure" the BIA because the CN "can't just sit around… and just wait."

A call was made to the BIA's Muskogee Area Office by the Phoenix, but was not returned.

Because citizens voted to abolish the amendment, they were allowed to vote in the July 26 run-off election to decide whether to retain the current 1976 Constitution or ratify the new 1999 Constitution. Cherokees voted 54 percent to 46 percent to ratify the new constitution, according to Election Commission results.

If the BIA decides to certify the amendment vote, the 1999 Constitution would automatically go into effect, Hembree said.

Some of the changes that would occur under the new constitution would include creating the office of speaker that would chair Tribal Council meetings and be third in line of succession to the head of government behind the principal chief and deputy chief, add two at-large councilors to the Tribal Council, provide term limits and set staggered council terms, establish a voting process for Cherokee voters residing outside CN jurisdiction, provide a delegate to the U.S. Congress and create the office of attorney general. The new constitution would also create District Courts in the tribe's judicial system as well as renaming the Judicial Appeals Tribunal as the Supreme Court and increasing its members from three to five.

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