Cherokee inaugurates new leaders
More than 700 people filled the Cherokee High School basketball arena to celebrate the inauguration of new tribal leaders Monday, Oct. 2.
Following a traditional welcome song from the Krazy Nation Singers, a performance in the Cherokee language from New Kituwah Academy students and a rendition of “The Blessing” from Stephanie Brown Scragg, Chief Justice Kirk Saunooke administered the oath of office to the winners of September’s elections for Tribal Council, school board and executive offices.
“I assure you, I do not take this position for granted,” Principal Chief Michelle Hicks said in a speech after being sworn into his fourth four-year term as the tribe’s top executive. “I’m honored to have been elected, and I promise that I will maintain my commitment to this tribe for the next four years. I will work in honor. I will work with integrity to prepare our future generations.”
Hicks previously led the tribe for three consecutive terms, 2003-2015, before declining to run for re-election in the 2015 contest that seated Patrick Lambert. Richard Sneed held the office from 2017, after Lambert was removed by impeachment , until his loss to Hicks this year.
Hicks’ win was decisive, a 65% majority, and came following growing concern from voters about the pace of spending on expensive, far-away business ventures while housing and drug addiction crises persist at home.
In his inauguration address, Hicks alluded to these financial issues, citing the need to “create sustainability for this tribe.”
“Our future must be planned, and our strategies must be calculated through data analysis,” he said. “We must better understand the value of the dollar, and we have to treat it with respect.”
Over the next four years, he said, tribal leaders must do a better job of planning, and of giving clear direction to employees.
Throughout his 10-minute speech, Hicks underlined the link between the past forged by the ancestors of today’s tribal members and the future that awaits — as well as the need for unity to meet that future well.
“We remember the pain that our ancestors endured for our wellbeing, and we will lift them up and know that their resilient blood that was shed for us through their trials, in their fights, in their battles,” Hicks said. “And we know that that blood flows through our veins, and if we have faith, that blood conquers fear. And it gives us courage to do what we have to do as tribal leaders to create a brighter future.”
In Cherokee culture, good governance depends on input from members of the community, as well as its elected officials, Hicks said, and success as a tribe requires unity of purpose.
Painttown Rep. Sean “Michael” Stamper takes the oath of office, surrounded by family. Holly Kays photo
“Today is a day that we celebrate,” he said. “It’s not a political victory. It’s not a ceremony. But an opportunity to forge our new position as a sovereign nation. We are here today to acknowledge an eternal promise — the coming together of one people. Not one person. One people. And together, we can create great things for future generations ahead.”
In brief remarks ahead of Hicks’ speech, newly re-elected Vice Chief Alan “B” Ensley also spoke of his belief that Inauguration Day is more about the enrolled members and the future of their tribe than it is about the individuals being sworn in.
“I made one promise [during the campaign], and that was I would represent every enrolled member who had a [enrollment] card, I would represent them to the fullest extent,” he said.
Hicks said he is committed to working with Ensley, who has held elected office within the tribe for 28 years.
“We’ve known each other a long time,” he said. “Plenty of stories to tell. But the story that’s most interesting to me is the story that we can create moving forward.”
After members of the new tribal government found their way out of the packed arena and equally packed parking lot, they traveled 3 miles down the road to the Cherokee Council House, where Ensley brought the new Council to order. After calling Rep. Karl Gillespie (R-Macon) to the podium to deliver a few comments, Ensley opened the floor to nominations for Council chairman, noting that the 12-member body was made up exclusively of men for the first time in “probably over 50 years.” Of the two women who served during the 2021-2023 term, longtime Painttown Rep. Tommye Saunooke died in office last year and Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy declined to run for re-election, instead launching an unsuccessful bid for Ensley’s seat.
Following a nomination from Wolfetown Rep. Bo Crowe, Rep. Mike Parker — also of Wolfetown — received unanimous support for the chairman’s seat. Parker previously served as chair in the 2007-2009 term. Snowbird/Cherokee County Rep. Bucky Brown had nominated his fellow Snowbird/Cherokee County Rep. Adam Wachacha, also a former chairman, but Wachacha declined the nomination.
Taking Ensley’s seat to preside over the remainder of the meeting, Parker said he appreciated Hicks’ words during the inauguration about unity and coming together. Like Hicks, he emphasized the need for fiscal responsibility in the years ahead.
“I think it’s going to be a good Council,” he said. “I’m hoping our focus will be primarily a more fiscally conservative approach and a much more measured approach to some of the decision-making as we move forward.”
Parker also hinted that conversations are forthcoming about how and when lobbying trips should occur.
“I want to let you guys know we’ll talk about that,” he said. “We need to develop a strategy I think.”
Tribal Council elected Yellowhill Rep. David Wolfe as vice chair, with no competing nominations. Similarly noncontroversial were decisions to continue using Sally Smoker as Indian clerk, Michelle Thompson as English clerk and Beloved Woman Myrtle Driver as interpreter. In a divided vote, Bobby Taylor was chosen as door marshal.
Parker and Wolfe will preside over an experienced Council devoid of freshmen. While four representatives from the last Council won’t be returning, all of their replacements are former Council members who have served multiple terms.
After electing officers, Tribal Council voted on a single resolution submitted by Hicks. The resolution, which passed unanimously, creates the new position of deputy chief of staff. The position will be funded from the line item designated for the now-vacant Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources position, which under Sneed had been held by Joey Owle.
The tribe’s new fiscal year started Oct. 1, but it is currently operating under a continuing resolution.
“Obviously, we’re just now getting started with our evaluation of how the overall structure is going to be in place and put before you, but to make sure that we immediately get the office staff, just looking at the overall responsibilities, I think there’s opportunity to maybe shift some of the responsibilities out from under this position,” Hicks said.
However, he told Council, agriculture “definitely will be a priority” for his administration.
Tribal Council adjourned shortly after noon and will reconvene on Monday, Oct. 9, for a new session in the Annual Council that will continue throughout October.