The banishees all had two things in common: they were all non-Cherokee, and they were all convicted drug offenders.
“We had been doing it all along, but we had not done that many,” Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, said of the banishments. “The reason we did that many is because people are coming to the boundary and they bring drugs and they sell drugs, so we banish them so they can’t come back.”
A banished person who returns to Cherokee land can be arrested — they can be charged with trespassing, and anyone deemed to be harboring a banished person on tribal land can be charged as well.
While there was no discussion during the banishment votes themselves, talk of drug-related issues and possible solutions has been prominent in council chambers for months. In December, McCoy introduced a resolution calling for a law to banish anyone — including enrolled members — convicted of selling drugs.
“I think that we need to take a stand and send a clear message throughout our communities that if you are charged and convicted of selling heroin, meth, hard pills, those kinds of drugs that can kill you, cause addiction — if they are convicted of selling, I think they should be banished from our Indian land,” McCoy said at the time.
The legislation was tabled and eventually withdrawn as other councilmembers took issue with the idea of banishing one of their own, drug dealer or no. But the conversation didn’t end.
In February, Principal Chief Patrick Lambert introduced a resolution that started discussion about tweaking the focus of the Cherokee Drug Commission, a group tasked with finding ways to address the drug problem. When Josh Stein, a candidate for N.C. Attorney General, addressed council in March, McCoy said he could help the tribe combat the drug issue. Because of how criminal jurisdictions work on Native American lands, it’s difficult to prosecute non-Indian drug offenders, McCoy told Stein, so “we need help getting persons who are caught doing that (selling drugs) on our land prosecuted.”
All that led up to the April council meeting, which began with McCoy’s announcement that councilmembers were invited to participate in a drug awareness march being held that day in town.
“We want them (drug dealers) to know this is our community, and it matters to us,” McCoy said. “We know who you are, we know where you live, we know what you’re doing, and we’re asking you to stop.”
“It’s not going to matter how much money we put into it, what kinds of programs we have,” said Kina Swayney, who as part of the Cherokee Civil Action Team was one of the march’s organizers. “It all begins and ends with us. Our team is going to be coming back in here with a resolution.”
Don’t be surprised, Swayney told council, when the group appears in May, asking for more resources to help with detox treatment at the hospital and for tougher drug laws to punish offenders. Cherokee is in the midst of a $16 million project to implement full-circle drug rehabilitation services, but many of those facilities are still being developed, and there are people who need help now, Swayney said.
McCoy is also working with the tribe’s Attorney General Office to get laws drafted to create harsher punishments, especially for drug dealers.
“We’ve got a new jail down there, and if we have to build another one to put them in, let’s do that,” she said during the February Tribal Council session. “I have no problem with it.”
While increased penalties are being considered, she’s withdrawn her banishment legislation. But that’s not to say she’s opposed to banishment if the tighter punishments don’t do the trick.
“I would personally hope that penalties will be strong enough that it would prevent people from doing it, but if it doesn’t, then the banishment issue will be coming back to the floor,” McCoy said.
Swayney expressed agreement with that point of view when she addressed council earlier this month.
“Banishment and loss of per capita, they’re things we don’t want to go to, but we do want to keep them on the table,” she said.
However it’s done, time is of the essence, said Vice Chief Richie Sneed. Prescription drug abuse is now one of the biggest issues in Cherokee, as it is in the rest of Western North Carolina, and oftentimes people addicted to prescription opiates turn to heroin when they run out of money or access to prescription drugs. That’s a reality that’s already showing up on the Qualla Boundary — as in the region as a whole.
“You can see the look of shock on community members’ faces when they find out the depth of the problem that we have here,” Sneed told council this month. “I had no idea until I attended the first meeting over in Birdtown that we even had heroin here. I left that meeting pretty heavy-hearted.”
Chairman Bill Taylor said he’s had the misfortune to witness the problem firsthand.
“I had my grandsons at my house one weekend, and lo and behold in the backyard somebody come down the road, pitched a syringe out the window and it made it into our backyard,” he said.
The needle problem has put Cherokee at “epidemic stage” when it comes to Hepatitis C, said Vickie Bradley, Secretary of Cherokee’s Public Health and Human Services Department. The virus can survive outside the body for up to three weeks.
All of that means that the time to act is now, in terms of both policy and education, Sneed said.
“Our community needs to know now on the front end, because if we wait for it (heroin) to get here in full force, it will be too late,” Sneed said.
Which, for McCoy, brings the conversation around full-circle to the people who provide the drugs in the first place. Addicts are sick people in need of help and treatment, she said, but the dealers who keep them addicted? Those people deserve every penalty possible, McCoy said.
“We cannot banish our drug addicts,” she said. “But we should banish those who make a living off of keeping those addicts stoned, high.”