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Hicks wins fourth term as Cherokee chief

Michell Hicks Michell Hicks

Cherokee looked back for its future in today’s General Election, with an overwhelming majority of voters electing to oust incumbent Principal Chief Richard Sneed and bring former Chief Michell Hicks back for a fourth term. On Tribal Council, voters brought change by replacing four incumbents with candidates who have previously served multiple terms on Council.

In addition to choosing new elected officials, tribal members overwhelmingly voted to endorse recreational marijuana use on the Qualla Boundary and to approve the issuance of mixed drink permits for establishments like hotels and restaurants.

Hicks, who was the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians principal chief 2003-2015, received 65% of the vote in today’s election, commanding a double-digit lead over Sneed in each of the tribe’s six townships. He did the best in Big Cove, where he drew 71% of 314 votes cast, and worst in Snowbird/Cherokee County, where he received 56% of 369 votes.

“We are presented with the invaluable opportunity to steer our tribal government’s focus back to our community, our membership, and create a brighter future,” Hicks wrote in a Facebook post published yesterday. “Your voices are not just important; they are essential to ensure the successes of our tribe. Your concerns are valid and significant. Access to your leadership through an open door is a cornerstone of responsive governance. Our tribe cannot afford to continue the path of financial distress that we are headed. We must work together in order to succeed and secure a stable government for the next generations.”

The 2023 election was a pivotal one for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which is seeing its longstanding monopoly on the region’s casino market crumble. Competitors have emerged in two nearby cities with more new casinos likely as multiple states continue conversations about expanding gambling. Sneed has made economic diversification a hallmark of his administration, setting up multiple LLCs charged with pursuing a variety of business ventures in order to safeguard the tribe’s long-term financial future. But these investments have proven expensive, and Sneed has received harsh criticism for the toll they’ve taken on tribal coffers. Tribal finance sat at the center of the 2023 campaign.

Sneed, who has held the office since 2017, posted a concession statement on Facebook at 8:10 p.m., just over two hours after polls closed at 6 p.m., saying his time in office was “the honor of a lifetime.”

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“It’s the will of the people, and I respect that,” Sneed said in a phone call. “I wish Michell Hicks the best of luck in everything that he does going forward.”

The Smoky Mountain News also reached out to Hicks after results were posted but did not receive a response.  

Sneed added that he was “very proud” of the work he and his team have done, accomplishing “a lot in a very short period of time.” He said the election results were “a bit of a gut punch” and blamed “lies and untrue rhetoric from Teresa McCoy” for his loss. McCoy has been critical of Sneed since his swearing-in, and the two have frequently engaged in verbal sparring matches over various issues in Tribal Council.

McCoy declined to run for re-election to her seat representing Big Cove on Tribal Council, instead making a bid for the vice chief’s seat, but Ensley easily held onto his office. He received 74.1% of the vote overall and, like Hicks, commanded a double-digit lead in each township. His worst showing, in Birdtown, still resulted in a 72% majority.

One-third of the Tribal Council Hicks and Ensley will work with for the first half of their term will be different than the body in office now. Vice Chairman Albert Rose lost his seat to former Council member Jim Owle, who was the first-place vote-getter. His brother Boyd, who came in only 13 votes behind him, will continue to occupy the second Birdtown seat.

In Wolfetown, Rep. Andrew Oocumma, who won his seat in a special election held in December 2022, will leave the horseshoe, because Bo Crowe, who resigned in January after facing charges in tribal court, came back strong to finish first. Mike Parker, who won the March special election caused by Crowe’s resignation, will remain in office after finishing second.

Tom Wahnetah, who represented Yellowhill on Tribal Council 2017-2021, will rejoin the body after coming in second to incumbent David Wolfe, edging out the other incumbent T.W. Saunooke. In Big Cove, McCoy’s bid for vice chief left a vacancy that will be filled by nine-term Council member Perry Shell, with Chairman Richard French keeping his seat. Also returning are Sean “Michael” Stamper and Dike Sneed in Painttown, and Adam Wachacha and Bucky Brown in Snowbird/Cherokee County.

On the Cherokee Central Schools Board, incumbent Tara Reed-Cooper will retain her seat while Micah Swimmer was successful in his challenge against incumbent Regina Ledford Rosario.

In what was for some people the most important item on the ballot, more than two-thirds of voters — 70% — said yes in a referendum question asking whether they support legalizing recreational cannabis use for adults 21 and older, and requiring Tribal Council to develop legislation to regulate the market. A slightly smaller 68% of voters said yes to a second referendum question asking whether they support allowing the Tribal ABC Commission to issue permits for the sale of mixed drinks at establishments such as hotels, restaurants, convention centers and nonprofits.

These referenda require action from Tribal Council to go into effect and are valid only if at least 30% of registered voters turned out. Voter turnout data is not yet available, but during a referendum vote in 2021, a vote total just under 2,900 was good for a turnout exceeding 40%. Both referenda posed this year drew more than 3,500 voters.

The vote totals will become official once certified by Tribal Council.

Unofficial election results

Principal Chief

Michell Hicks                                       65% (2,254 votes)

Richard Sneed                                     35% (1,212)

Vice Chief

Alan “B” Ensley*                                 74.2% (2,608)

Teresa McCoy                                     25.8% (908)

Referendum concerning recreational cannabis

Yes                                                       70% (2,464)

No                                                       30% (1,057)    

Referendum concerning mixed drinks

Yes                                                       68.3% (2,398)

No                                                       31.7% (1,113)


Jim Owle†                                           32.2% (509)

Boyd Owle*                                         31.5% (496)

Albert Rose*                                       19% (299)

Cyndi Lambert                                    17.2% (271)

Wolfetown/Big Y

Bo Crowe†                                           34.5% (582)                

Mike Parker*                                      27.5% (464)

Andrew Oocumma*                           22.8% (385)    

Peanut Crowe                                     15.1% (255)


Sean “Michael” Stamper*                  40.4% (335)

Dike Sneed*                                        25.5% (211)

Jeff Thompson                                    23.6% (196)

Carolyn West                                      10.5% (87)


David Wolfe*                                      33.3% (260)

Tom Wahnetah†                                 28.7% (224)

T.W. Saunooke*                                  20.8% (162)

Stephanie Saunooke French               17.2% (134)

Big Cove

Perry Shell†                                         40.4% (238)

Richard French*                                  32.1% (189)                            

Venita Wolfe                                       27.5% (162)

Snowbird/Cherokee County

Adam Wachacha*                              35.6% (262)

Bucky Brown*                                     34.9% (257)

Janell Rattler                                       29.6% (218)

Big Y School Board

Samantha Crowe Hernandez              30.1% (56)

Tara Reed-Cooper*                             69.9% (130)

Painttown School Board

Regina Ledford Rosario*                    33.9% (150)

Micah Swimmer                                  66.1% (292)

* incumbent

† held this office previously

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