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Bushyhead run puts spotlight on Swain-Cherokee relationship

For the first time in history, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is running for a seat on the Swain County Board of Commissioners.

Ben Bushyhead lives just outside Bryson City and works for tribal government as the director of community and recreation services, which encompasses social services, seniors service, and youth service to name a few. The budget Bushyhead oversees in his department rivals that of the Swain County government.

While improving relations between Swain County and the tribe is not the centerpiece of Bushyhead’s campaign, it is certainly a part of it.

“There has always been a lot of animosity between Swain County and the Reservation for myriad reasons,” Bushyhead said. “Swain County politicians have always cut off their nose to spite their face.”

Commissioner David Anthony disagreed.

“I don’t think we have a bad relationship with the tribe. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it,” said Anthony. “I think I could go talk to them anytime. If I thought there was a strain or problem with that relationship I would go to talk to them.”

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Chairman Glenn Jones agrees with Anthony.

“As far as I know we’ve had a good relationship with the tribe. If there is a problem there, I am not aware of it,” Jones said. “I’ve gone up there for two or three appointments and sat down with the chief in his office.” Jones added that he and the chief always stop to chat if they run into each other at Wal-Mart in Sylva for example.

That is not adequate, according to one of Jones’ challengers, Ronnie Barker. Barker called the relationship with the tribe very poor.

“That would be one of my priorities, to resurrect and create a good chain of communication and partnership with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians,” Barker said, adding that the tribe is the “heart of economic development within Western North Carolina.”

Barker, whose campaign slogan is “aggressively progressive,” said the tribe is the “most aggressively progressive group of people anywhere in Western North Carolina,” citing the Reservation-wide broadband Internet initiative and their planned state-of-the-art school campus as examples. Barker’s son works at Cherokee High School.

Boyd Gunter, also a candidate for chairman, said Swain County leaders could do better.

“They are going to bring in million of dollars,” said Gunter, whose wife is a teacher at Cherokee Elementary. “The tribe has to work with Swain County and Swain County has got to work with the tribe.”

Bushyhead said the relationship between Jackson County and the tribe is better than Swain’s.

“Because they collaborate, they have reached out to the tribe and said ‘Let’s work together on various issues. Swain County has not done that,” Bushyhead said. Bushyhead said Swain County is the one that stands to gain from collaboration.

“The Reservation does not need that relationship now. Swain County does,” Bushyhead said. Bushyhead is a trained mediator, helping settle landmark disputes as controversial as water rights between Western states and land rights between Western states and American Indian tribes.

Lou Ball, a commissioner candidate, said Swain County commissioners made a bad move when they formally opposed the tribe’s acquisition of a piece of land from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a new school campus, even though the county leaders later changed their stance.

“We have got to mend the rift between Swain County and the tribe that has been created in the past four years to move forward like we need to,” Ball said.

Phillip Carson, a commissioner candidate, said there is room for improvement in the relationship with the tribe. But Carson added that Swain County goofed up by allowing the tribe to buy a large field that is home to the Kituhwa Mound, considered the sacred mothertown of the Cherokee people and now a historic site.

“I feel like our county leaders at that time should have bought that property for county government improvements. You’d have plenty of room for county growth,” Carson said. Carson also said the tribe should pay property taxes to Swain County for land that is part of the Reservation.

“They don’t pay their fair share of the taxes,” Carson said.

Bushyhead said this is an example of the animosity that must be overcome.

“The mere fact that citizens of the Reservation don’t pay quote ‘taxes in Swain County’ is probably one of the most racist remarks in a long time. It is irresponsible and ignorant,” Bushyhead said.

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