Impeachment in Cherokee

Tribal members discuss impeachment, Grand Council, and the state of the tribe

Tribal members discuss impeachment, Grand Council, and the state of the tribe

It would be near impossible to find someone in Cherokee these days who doesn’t know about the political turmoil enveloping the tribe, or who doesn’t have an opinion about who’s to blame. Last week The Smoky Mountain News ventured over to Food Lion, the Qualla Boundary’s only grocery store, asking tribal members for their take on the whole thing as they walked in to pick up a gallon of milk or returned from a full-scale shopping trip.

That day, April 20, was originally scheduled as the impeachment hearing for Principal Chief Patrick Lambert, but a court order put a halt on the process. The hearing, if it winds up being held at all, now isn’t likely to happen until mid-May at the earliest. So, as the warm spring day vacillated between sun, wind and rain, tribal members were left to wait and wonder what might happen next. 

Of the seven people interviewed, only one expressed support for Tribal Council’s efforts to remove Lambert from office. Comments from tribal member Gail Pusch, 62, succinctly summarized the consensus of the majority interviewed. 

“The council’s been on a witch-hunt for our chief forever, and I think it’s just awful because he’s done more good for our tribe than anybody,” she said. “He’s exposing corruption, and that’s why these councilmembers are doing everything they’re doing to get him out. Because they’re corrupt.” 

Tribal members voted overwhelmingly to put Lambert in office, Pusch said, and they want him to stay in. Seeing council move steadfastly forward with the impeachment proceedings feels like a slap in the face. 

“I think it’s a bunch of crap what the council is doing,” she said. “I don’t think they have a right. I’m just sickened by it right now.”

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Most of those interviewed didn’t waste much time in bringing up the FBI investigation when asked their thoughts on the impeachment issue. After his election, Lambert had a forensic audit of tribal finances conducted, and he turned the results over to the FBI. This resulted in an investigation into the Qualla Housing Authority, on whose board six of the 12 councilmembers sit.

“Nothing was brought up about it until the audit with the housing,” said Joseph Arch, 25. “That’s whenever everything started kicking into gear. That’s whenever everything really started happening. But he’s doing what he said he was going to do and I respect him for that, but I don’t respect the councilmembers, how they’re going about it.”

“They’re just mad because they got caught doing what they was doing, and it’s finally coming out,” said Erica Lambert, 33. She said she’s no direct relation to the chief. 

“I feel like it’s crazy, and I feel like they’re trying to impeach him because he’s trying to do the right thing,” agreed Anissa Price, a 23-year-old mother of two. 

Of course, not everybody feels that way. 

A woman who would identify herself only as a tribal member in her 30s or 40s caught the reporter’s attention for a chance to give her opinion on the issue. 

“I just wish that if Mr. Lambert says that he’s innocent, why won’t he just let the (impeachment) hearing happen? If I was charged with something I wasn’t guilty of I would want to prove it,” she said. “All these different strategies he’s using to avoid it makes me wonder why he’s doing it.”

Janet Smith, 61, said she doesn’t know enough about the issue to have a strong opinion on impeachment. However, she said, it’s distressing to see the tribe so divided and the government so paralyzed.

“I’d like to see the executive office and the council work together,” Smith said. “Being at odds with each other is not good for us.”

However, Smith said, she did go to the Grand Council Lambert held April 18, though she wasn’t able to stay for the whole thing. Of the seven people interviewed, the source who wished to remain anonymous was the only one who didn’t attend and had no desire to attend. 

“It was another means of him avoiding the hearing,” the woman said. “And I knew that it didn’t have any kind of legislative power.” 

With only 1,355 people out of more than 15,000 tribal members attending, she said, the results couldn’t speak for the entire tribe. Smith said that worried her, too. 

“Although there were a lot of people that showed up, it’s not even near the majority of the membership of the tribe, so that kind of concerns me,” she said. 

While the turnout was a relatively low percentage of the tribe’s entire membership, it was a significant percentage of the electorate. In the 2015 election, 3,661 people voted in the chief’s race, and during Grand Council 31.3 percent of that number — 1,140 people — voted on whether the impeachment process should be stopped. 

The remainder of those interviewed either gave positive reviews of Grand Council or expressed their regret at having to miss it. Price said she’d had to work, unfortunately, while Willard Lossie, 67, said he had a prior commitment in Asheville. 

“I would have went though,” he said, expressing his support for Lambert. “Maybe the next one.”

“I thought it was good,” Erica Lambert said. “I thought it was great, but they (Tribal Council) ain’t upholding it and I think that’s wrong.”

Arch said it was good to be able to go and hear what everyone had to say, though he said it bothered him to hear people booing one speaker who was expressing opinions in opposition to Lambert. 

“It was there for everyone to talk and say what they needed to say,” Arch said. “And they should have more or less showed more respect.”

He was also upset that most councilmembers didn’t show up. Two of those who have been consistently opposed to impeachment — Councilmembers Richard French, of Big Cove, and Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown — were there, with Councilmember Teresa McCoy, of Big Cove, sending her best wishes while traveling out of town. But the remaining nine were notably absent. 

“I wished all the other councilmembers could have been there to listen,” Arch said. “That way they could understand what the people are thinking. To me really I thought it should have been recommended that they showed up, that they sat there and listened.”

Overwhelmingly, tribal members interviewed in the Food Lion parking lot that day expressed sadness at the state of the tribe and a desire for things to turn right-side up once more. 

“I think we have bigger things to work on besides this,” Smith said.

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