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A voter guide for Yellowhill Tribal Council

A voter guide for Yellowhill Tribal Council

During the General Election Sept. 7, Yellowhill voters will choose two of the four names before them to be their voice in Tribal Council for the next two years. 


Following the Primary Election, incumbent David Wolfe was by far the most popular of the five candidates on the ballot in that race, receiving 31.8% of the vote, while his fellow representative T.W. Saunooke made it through to the General Election with a fourth-place finish at 16.8%.

Coming in between the two incumbents were Tom Wahnetah, who held the seat 2017-2021, in second place with 20.1% of the vote, and Stephanie Saunooke French in third place, with 17.8%. However, the margins were narrow. Only 20 votes separated second-place Wahnetah and fourth-place Saunooke. In total, 601 votes were cast for Yellowhill Tribal Council in June, with a significant increase expected for the upcoming General Election. During the last election that included a race for chief, in 2019, 861 votes were cast for Yellowhill Tribal Council.

The Smoky Mountain News reached out to all four candidates to ask their opinion on a range of issues. Only Wolfe responded for this General Election questionnaire. Wahnetah did reply to a more limited questionnaire ahead of the Primary Election that asked candidates for biographical information and their top three priorities should they win the race. Additional information is drawn from previous reporting by SMN and other sources as noted. 

David Wolfe

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Wolfe, 52, is serving his eighth term representing Yellowhill on Tribal Council. He graduated from Western Carolina University in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance and worked with UPS for 15 years before serving his first term on Tribal Council. During that time, he has served on various committees, including Health Board, Business Committee, HIP Committee, Enrollment Committee and Roads Committee.

Top three priorities if elected: Education, from pre-K through college; health care, including mental health and rehabilitation; and affordable housing.

Opinion on proposed constitution: The proposed constitution is no longer on the ballot this year, but Wolfe supports the idea of having a constitution.

Path to stabilize and grow tribal finances: Tribal Council must work hard to ensure that projects stay on budget and are built to last, he said, and the tribe must hire inspectors who will hold contractors accountable for their work. As an example of the need for this, he points to Cherokee Central Schools, which was completed in 2009 for $140 million. A mold issue discovered last year in the relatively new facility is expected to cost many millions of dollars to fix. 

Ideas to improve economic development and quality of life in Cherokee: The tribe must get its ceremonial grounds built back so that events on that site can continue. The project, once completed, “will have a huge impact on the local economy,” he said. 

Tom Wahnetah

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Wahnetah, 61, works as senior project manager for Kituwah Builders, a tribally owned LLC. He is seeking his third term on Council after representing Yellowhill from 2017-2021. While on Council, he met with federal legislative leaders about tribal issues and was appointed to tribal committees including Community Services, Qualla Parks and Recreation, Qualla Housing, Timber and Natural Resources, Enrollment Housing, Planning Board and Community Projects.  Wahnetah is an N.C. Licensed General Contractor with 40 years of experience in commercial and residential construction projects with budgets ranging from $50,000 to $5 million.

Top three priorities if elected: encourage downtown revitalization by supporting the tribe and searching for ways to strengthen and revitalize tribally owned businesses, provide resources toward ongoing efforts to preserve and perpetuate the Cherokee language and increase recreational activities for children on the Qualla Boundary, including a community pool.  

T.W. Saunooke

Saunooke is serving his first term on Tribal Council and previously spent six years as an elected member of the Cherokee Central Schools Board of Education. While on the School Board, Saunooke was elected by the N.C. General Assembly of School Board members to serve on the North Carolina School Board Association Board of Directors and the N.C. School Board Federal Relations Network. He has also served on the N.C. USA Wrestling board of directors. Prior to joining Tribal Council, he was a project manager for seven years with 25 years of experience in the construction industry. 

Opinion on proposed constitution: During a June 21 work session, Saunooke said that he supported a referendum vote on the proposed document, but in July he voted with 10 other Council members to delay the referendum so that a new Constitution Convention could work out legal issues with the document. 

Stephanie Saunooke French

French works as education supervisor for the Cherokee Youth Center. According to her campaign Facebook page, she has served as vice chair of the Yellowhill Community Club since 2021 and has been employed by the tribe for nearly 16 years, holding various positions over that time.

Top priorities if elected: As stated on her campaign Facebook page, French supports equal employment opportunities, filling gaps in services for families who don’t qualify for existing services, economic diversification by building up the local community and improved housing opportunities for enrolled members. 

Opinion on proposed constitution: As a member of the Community Club Council, French was an active part of the effort to finalize the draft constitution and encourage Tribal Council to allow a referendum vote adopting it.

Path to stabilize and grow tribal finances: In comments posted to her campaign’s Facebook page, French expressed concern about the “hundreds of millions of dollars in debt” the tribe’s children will inherit and said that economic diversification must be achieved through building up the local community. She said she supports legislation to get the tribe fully out of debt and involved with projects it can afford without adding to the debt. 

Ideas to improve economic development and quality of life in Cherokee: French said she favors investing in building up the local community and bringing “family friendly activities and attractions” to Cherokee. She also wants to see barriers removed for enrolled members wanting to build homes on land they own on the Qualla Boundary.

Also on the ballot

In addition to voting for principal chief, vice chief, Tribal Council and School Board candidates, Cherokee voters will also face a pair of referendum questions. Passage requires a majority vote in favor and a voter turnout of at least 30%. The questions are:

• Do you support allowing the Tribal ABC Commission to issue mixed beverage permits for the sale of mixed beverages on tribal lands to qualified establishments including but not limited to restaurants, hotels, convention centers and non-profit organizations? 

• Do you support legalizing the possession and use of cannabis for persons who are at least twenty-one (21) years old, and require the EBCI Tribal Council to develop legislation to regulate the market?

Hear the candidates

Three of the four Yellowhill candidates participated in a General Election debate hosted by The Cherokee One Feather. Watch it at, starting at the two hour, six minute mark.

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