By Molly O'Toole
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The country's second-largest Indian tribe came to an agreement on Tuesday that could reinstate some 2,800 African Americans to the Cherokee Nation, just four days before an election for its principal chief.
The ousted group, known as the "Cherokee Freedmen," are descendants of slaves once owned by wealthy Indians.
"We've agreed to everything," Freedmen attorney Jonathan Velie said. "We've agreed upon an order between the Cherokee Freedmen, Cherokee Nation, the (federal) government ... to essentially reinstate the citizens into the Cherokee Nation, so that they may vote equally with fellow Cherokee citizens."
The agreement was reached as a preliminary hearing was held in federal court in Washington, D.C. to decide whether the September 24 election for principal chief of the 300,000-member Cherokee tribe could proceed without Freedmen votes.
The hearing involved two cases regarding the controversy, in which the Freedman have brought suit against the Cherokee tribe and the federal government to guarantee their tribal rights, such as the right to vote and other benefits.
Amber Blaha, representing the U.S. government, seconded the agreement and told U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy the government only anticipated a few provisions.
Attorney General for the Cherokee Nation A. Diane Hammons said, "This basically returns to the status quo."
Kennedy required the agreement in writing by 10 a.m. Wednesday. Both parties were working together to hash out the wording and details.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs had threatened to not recognize Saturday's election for principal chief of the 300,000 member Cherokee Tribe after the Cherokee Supreme Court ruled last month that the tribe had the right to change the constitution on citizenship. The Department of Housing and Urban Development also withheld $33 million in disbursement.
By the 1830s, most of the Cherokee tribe -- and many of these slaves -- were forced to move from the Eastern United States to present-day Oklahoma.
After the Civil War, in which the Cherokee fought for the South, the Cherokee and the government signed a treaty guaranteeing tribal citizenship for the freed slaves.
The U.S. government has argued that the 1866 treaty guaranteed the Freedmen tribal citizenship, regardless of Cherokee blood relation.
But last month's decision by the Cherokee Supreme Court to only recognize citizenship for those who could prove Cherokee blood relation meant many black members of the tribe were no longer considered citizens. This made them ineligible to receive benefits or vote in the coming tribal elections.
Acting Principal Chief Joe Crittenden has criticized what he called federal threats to the tribe's sovereignty.
Plaintiff Marilyn Vann, a leader of the Freedmen, was one of the number stripped of Cherokee citizenship and pursuing restoration of citizenship and voting rights, or to delay the vote for principal chief until resolution.
About 3,500 more slave descendants have citizenship applications pending with the tribe, according to an attorney who represented the Freedmen in a tribal lawsuit.
Tuesday's agreement, which will extend voting to October 8 to allow the Freedman to participate, marked an initial resolution to the long-standing tensions in the tribe.
"When I was sworn in as chief," Crittenden said in a statement Thursday night, "I swore to abide by the Cherokee Constitution and the U.S. Constitution."
(Editing by Greg McCune)