The scheduled 1 p.m. start time came and went as people continued to stream into the gymnasium’s stadium-style bleachers, pausing at the entrance to receive either a red or green dot to display on their clothing. Green dots went to people who had verified their status as enrolled tribal members, giving them the right to speak before the crowd and fill out a ballot — after turning in a ballot, the dot would be marked with an X. Red dots went to non-enrolled people, who were allowed to attend but not to vote or address the audience. Individual copies of the resolutions were not given out, but poster-size printouts were taped up on the wall inside.
Chief Lambert took the mic to apologize for the delay and promise to start just as soon as everyone had had a chance to park. It was nearly 1:30 p.m. by the time prayer, the presentation of colors and remarks by honored elders were underway to kick off the meeting.
“I just want to tell y’all how humbled I am to be here today,” Lambert addressed the crowd. “I want to welcome you to your Grand Council.”
Grand Council, which the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Charter and Governing Document gives the principal chief the right to call, is a gathering to which all enrolled members are invited. The exact function and authority of Grand Council, however, is currently the subject of a lawsuit in Cherokee Tribal Court (see story on page 14).
In his remarks to Grand Council, however, Lambert said that the body has authority to pass, uphold or overturn laws, and its decisions supersede those of Tribal Council.
“Typically those decisions happen within our government buildings and our government offices and down at the council chambers,” Lambert said. “Yet every so often in our history we’re faced with situations that are more political and complicated. We’ve handed that power back to the people to make those decisions.”
He then ran through a list of his administration’s accomplishments over the past year-and-a-half, the promises he’d campaigned on and reiterated at his 2015 swearing-in, and the serious challenges still facing the tribe. Lambert also affirmed his contention that the effort to impeach him is based on retaliation for his work to expose corruption and demand transparency in tribal government. When he came into office, he admitted, he may have inadvertently made some procedural mistakes, but those mistakes were not violations of the law and not impeachable offenses.
“I will honor the results of this meeting today one way or the other,” Lambert said. “I want to say that whatever the outcome of the meeting today, the FBI’s not stopping. The FBI’s still coming.”
The rules for that day’s Grand Council, he told the crowd — which would eventually total 1,355 people — were developed from rules published in The Cherokee One Feather surrounding the series of Grand Council sessions former Principal Chief Joyce Dugan held in 1995 and 1996.
The rules included 25 different items. Stipulations included declaring a quorum to be the number of tribal members present at the time of the meeting; allowing any enrolled member to speak on any issue for 3 minutes; giving the chief the power to preside and decide when to cut off discussion; requiring members to be at least 18 years old to vote; and declaring that all decisions would become effective immediately upon ratification by the chief.
Energy in the room was high as the agenda got started. The first two of the four listed items dealt with issues unrelated to the impeachment controversy that initially spurred Lambert to call the Grand Council. Those items called for creation of a program to pay power bills for tribal elders and a resolution to designate the old high school for use as a tribal headquarters.
However, it was clear that most folks in the room were primarily interested in discussing the impeachment issue. Though 25 people spoke during the discussion on the power bill program, many of their comments had nothing to do with power bills.
“I believe that when we voted, we voted for change, and when the change comes that means cleaning house and that means you’re going to clean the dirty. You’re not going to keep it. We don’t want the clutter,” said Victoria Welch, one of the first speakers of the evening. “I just want to say, Chief Lambert, you’re doing an awesome job.”
“When you left (the hospital) you asked if I had any advice for you,” said Alfred Lossiah, who once served as director of the Cherokee Indian Hospital when Lambert was an addiction counselor there, before he went to law school. “I said, ‘Yes, the only thing I need to say to you is never compromise your ethics and your principles,’ and over the years I have not seen you do that.”
“I really appreciate Patrick, what he’s doing for the elders,” added Edith Crowe, of Wolfetown. “I think these councilmembers need to be put out, completely.”
Three hours in, the power bill resolution passed — by a show of hands, with that display backed up later in the evening by a count of paper ballots — and some people left. The ballots, printed on blue paper, could be dropped off at any point during the meeting at one of the provided boxes, which were staffed at all times.
The thinning crowd could be what prompted Lambert to move the impeachment-related resolutions up on the agenda and bump the second item — the one dealing with the old high school — to the end.
Stopping the impeachment
The impeachment resolutions sought to kill and prevent execution of the two resolutions that Tribal Council had passed in February and in April — first, to draft articles of impeachment against Lambert and hire an impeachment attorney, and second, to approve the articles and set an impeachment hearing date.
As with the first agenda item, the resolutions drew strong support from nearly all of the 22 people who spoke on them.
Secretary of State Terri Henry, who served as chairwoman of Tribal Council in the two years preceding Lambert’s election, was the first to take the mic.
“One of the things that I’ve seen, chief, you do is to strive for accountability, and today this whole conversation and everything that’s led to us being here today is all about accomplishing government accountability,” she said. That wasn’t the case during the previous administration, she said, when laws and procedures were routinely flouted.
“These articles (of impeachment) are in essence trying to go to the letter of the law,” Henry said. “Where were they (Tribal Council) in 2014? Where were they?”
“Since Chief Lambert has come in and taken over operations, the accountability has increased,” added Polly Castorena, of Wolfetown, who has worked for the tribe since 2008. “I see it day to day.”
Many speakers expressed anger with their Tribal Council representatives — for not attending Grand Council, or for not representing them as they felt they should be represented, or both.
“This is Grand Council,” said Patricia Garcia, of Birdtown. “I think they (councilmembers) should be here because they’re supposed to be the people who speak for us. Supposed to be.”
Of the 12 councilmembers, only Richard French, of Big Cove, and Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, attended. Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, sent her regards but was out of town at the time. The other nine — the same nine who have consistently voted for impeachment — simply didn’t attend.
Concerns and opposition
The meeting was more than just a forum for Lambert’s supporters to express solidarity or air grievances about the legislative branch, however. The session also involved several back-and-forth discussions about the wording of the resolutions and about the legitimacy of the process itself.
Perhaps the most explosive resulted from a series of comments by Joey Owle, a Wolfetown community member who is running for a school board seat.
“Only one group in the room was allowed to submit resolutions,” Owle said, referring to the fact that all four resolutions on the agenda were submitted by a group called The Committee For Putting Cherokee Families First. “Why wasn’t anybody else given the opportunity to do so? This Grand Council is about the chief. This is about his agenda.”
Owle called Lambert’s management style “dictatorial” and “micro-managing,” referring to the Grand Council as a “pep rally” and saying that tribal employees who aren’t Lambert supporters didn’t show up for fear of repercussions.
“Having supported Chief Lambert twice in the previous two elections, I wouldn’t support him again based on how he conducts himself,” Owle said.
Owle’s comments were met with boos and yells from the audience, though some other audience members responded by yelling that Owle should be allowed to speak, even if he wasn’t expressing the viewpoint held by the majority in attendance.
Others questioned the voting method. Many people marked their ballots and turned them in before the discussion was complete.
“What I’ve already voted on is different than what we’ve amended,” said Lavita Hill, of Big Cove. “The resolution, we’ve since changed them, so what if I want to change my vote based on the changes?”
“Well the resolution wasn’t included on your ballot,” Lambert said. “It was just a description.”
Ashley Sessions, a Birdtown candidate for Tribal Council, said that the resolutions should include provisions to keep Tribal Council from simply passing duplicates of the impeachment resolutions if Grand Council voted to repeal them.
“We know how sneaky they are,” Sessions said. “We know they would just create a new one.”
This resulted in an amendment stating, “Tribal Council shall not take any action that contradicts the express intent of these resolutions.” However, Susan Toineeta, a former Tribal Council member from Wolfetown, later took the mic to say that the resolution was too broad in its prohibition against future impeachment efforts. Elsewhere in the ordinance, it’s stated, “any ordinance pertaining to the impeachment is hereby invalid and unacceptable.”
Toineeta moved to strike that phrase about any impeachment ordinance being invalid, saying it would hamstring Tribal Council should any impeachable offense arise in the future. However, Grand Council voted to kill that move.
Vote opposes impeachment
Both anti-impeachment resolutions passed handily, with the room becoming largely empty by the time Grand Council made it to the last item on the agenda, which sought to authorize turning the old high school into a centralized tribal headquarters building. This passed as well, though the discussion spurred a move from the floor to resolve that solid plans be made to expand the Cherokee-language New Kituwah Academy to serve students all the way through 12th grade. The issues were related in many people’s minds, as Tribal Council had some time ago discussed using the old high school for the academy.
By the time the discussion was over, the votes counted and the meeting dismissed, it was 8 p.m. But Lambert indicated that, while it had been more than 20 years since a Grand Council was held, it might not be quite that long before another session convened. He recessed the meeting rather than actually adjourning it, meaning that Grand Council could be resumed at any time.
“Great job today,” Lambert said before recessing the meeting. “We’re going to do this more often. I think it’s a great day for the Cherokee people and returning some power back to our people. Don’t let them tell you that your votes don’t count. This is real.”
In total, 1,355 people attended the April 18 Grand Council meeting, and 1,242 turned in a ballot. Of those ballots, 1,140 included votes on the impeachment issue, with 84 percent voting to end the impeachment effort against Principal Chief Patrick Lambert.
While turnout to the Grand Council included less than 1 percent of all enrolled members, the number of votes cast on the impeachment question was 31.3 percent of the number of votes cast in the 2015 election for principal chief. In that election, Lambert secured 71 percent of the vote.
Grand Council voted on the following resolutions:
• Res. 1: Create a “Power to the People” program that provides $115 per month for tribal elders to pay their electric bills.
• For: 1,182 votes. Against: 60 votes.
• Res. 2: Rename the old Cherokee High School building “Maggie Wachacha Tribal Headquarters” and turn it into a one-stop shop for all tribal programs.
• For: 1,029. Against: 119.
• Res. 3: Rescind Tribal Council’s 2017 resolution 502, which directed impeachment charges be developed against Principal Chief Patrick Lambert.
• For: 958. Against: 182.
• Res. 4: Rescind Tribal Council’s 2017 resolution 546, which lists articles of impeachment and sets an impeachment hearing date.
• For: 959. Against: 183.