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Cherokee council vows to crack down on drug dealers

cherokeeDrug addiction is perhaps the biggest crisis on the Qualla Boundary, and it’s time that tribal government got serious about punishing traffickers, members of Cherokee Tribal Council agreed last week.

The discussion began with a resolution from Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, asking that council direct the Attorney General’s office to draft a law banishing anyone convicted of selling illegal drugs from tribal lands. As a sovereign nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has the right to forbid any individual from entering its land, though enforcing such banishments can be problematic. 

“At no time have I targeted the addict, but I have targeted the dealer,” McCoy said of her legislation. “If you want to kill a snake, you cut off its head.” 

Addicts need compassion and help to get their lives back, McCoy said, but the people who make money selling the substances that suck people down that dark hole deserve no such forgiveness. 

“We banish those (non-Cherokee people) for the same thing ours are doing, and we don’t banish ours and the same harm is here,” she said. 

Other councilmembers thanked McCoy for bringing the issue up, agreeing that drug abuse and trafficking is wreaking havoc on Cherokee families. But none of them voiced support for the banishment component of the resolution, pointing out that kicking a person off of tribal lands effectively cuts through their safety net and strips them of their identity — that’s not a road that leads toward rehabilitation, councilmembers said. 

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“We have people that people just want to throw away,” said Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird. “They probably have a lot of good in them. We just have to find it.”

“It’s our responsibility as the Eastern Band to save these children,” agreed Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown. “We can’t banish them. Let’s help them.”

Banishment, multiple councilmembers agreed, basically ensures that the person who’s kicked out will never get their life back. 

“In my experience with it, had I been banished I wouldn’t be here today, but there was a network around me — family, community,” said Vice Chair Brandon Jones, of Snowbird. “They caught me when I fell. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you’re not going to make mistakes. There’s just a net to catch you when you fall.”

Gloria Griffin, a tribal member who lost a child to drug abuse, echoed those sentiments in her comments to Tribal Council. Kicking someone off of tribal land for good is essentially a death sentence, she said — instead, tribal government should increase resources for rehabilitation. 

“We can’t turn our backs on our people,” Griffin said. “If they’ve straightened up for two or three years, give them a place. I can’t bring my daughter back, but I might be able to save somebody else.”

Peggy Hill, a Yellowhill tribal member, has a different point of view. 

“If they’re killing our people, I don’t think they need to be here,” she said of the dealers. “That’s how I feel.” 

Hill and McCoy may have been the only ones in the room promoting banishment as a consequence for dealing, but that doesn’t mean tribal government’s gunning for leniency where drug dealers are concerned. It’s time to have a serious discussion about how to do a better job of holding those people responsible and ensuring that, when they do leave jail, they’re done with that way of life, came the consensus. 

“I see it every day in my community,” said Chairman Bill Taylor, of Wolfetown. “It’s all dangerous, but you got heroin and everything coming into our communities now. We need to do something about the problem.” 

Councilmember Richie French, of Big Cove, noted that he’s seen a much bigger law enforcement presence since Principal Chief Patrick Lambert took office. That’s a step in the right direction of keeping an eye out for illegal drug use and related crimes, such as breaking and entering. 

But police coverage is only the beginning of addressing the issue, councilmembers agreed. Cherokee code already gives council the right to banish people convicted of dealing drugs, and banishment shouldn’t necessarily be the go-to punishment. However, tribal government could do more to make sure that drug crimes are better prosecuted and that perpetrators are better rehabilitated. 

“We need to get the Attorney General’s office and get some general direction to make sure we get some convictions out and get these people in jail,” Smith said. “That would help more than anything.”

“We need to really concentrate on this long-term treatment center and do something to help the addict,” added Saunooke.

The tribe is currently in the midst of establishing the treatment center, along with transition homes for people graduating from rehab programs. 

Council will likely hold a work session with representatives from the courts, law enforcement and attorney general’s office to start discussing ways they can do more to lessen the toll drug use is taking on the community. 

“This is a very important issue, and I think each and every one of us in this room has been affected by this one way or another,” Taylor said.

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