Cherokee council vows to crack down on drug dealers

cherokeeDrug addiction is perhaps the biggest crisis on the Qualla Boundary, and it’s time that tribal government got serious about punishing traffickers, members of Cherokee Tribal Council agreed last week.

Cherokee court hands out first-ever sentence to non-Indian

fr cherokeejusticeWhat in most courts would have been a simple case of violating a domestic violence protective order was a landmark moment for the Cherokee Tribal Court.

N.C. Superior Court judge to double as tribal court justice

Bradley Letts will have to keep his day job, but the Superior Court Judge will soon begin serving as a temporary judge for the Cherokee Supreme Court. 

Tribe gains ability to prosecute non-Indians

Proponents of domestic violence prevention are cheering following the launch of a federal law that will allow tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians who commit domestic violence on tribal land.   

“It’s going to be a really good thing for the tribe,” said Bill Boyum, Chief Justice of the Cherokee Supreme Court.

Sex abuse case to be retried in tribal court following federal dismissal

Nine months ago, a federal sex abuse case against Harland Squirrel, of Cherokee, ended in dismissal after the jury failed to reach a verdict. But the case hasn’t gone away. In May, Squirrel will face the charges again in tribal court. 

Cherokee-run welfare office provides easier access to aid

fr cherokeewelfareFrom the outside, Sandy Cloer’s office doesn’t look like much — not even a real office, in fact. 

The three double-wide trailers strung end-to-end and plopped at the back of a barren parking lot hardly seem cut from the same cloth as Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort just a few miles away, dripping with glitz and glam and money.

News notes from Cherokee

State of housing in Cherokee to be surveyed

A federal study researching housing conditions on Indian reservations across the U.S. will include the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

In 2009, Congress mandated that the Department of Housing and Urban Development assess housing needs among people living on reservations. The study will determine need based on demographic, social and economic conditions.

The goal is to amass “clear, credible and consistent information that can inform Congress,” according to a resolution approved by Tribal Council last week.

Although all tribes can complete surveys online, the Eastern Band is one of 40 randomly selected tribes whose enrolled members have a chance answer more in-depth household surveys. Selected participants will receive a $20 gift card for their time.

The in-person household survey will ask questions such as: how many people live in each residence; reasons multiple people are living in the same household; and what features the home includes.

Although only a handful of enrolled members of the Eastern Band will fill out in the in-person survey, researchers are collecting multiple types of information to give a more complete picture of life on reservations. They will look at readily available information such as Census data, conduct in-person and phone interviews, and involve background interviews and literature reviews.

Data collection began in January and will continue until January next year, with preliminary findings scheduled for completion in June 2014. The results will not affect how much funding individual tribes receive but could influence overall allocations for the federal Indian Housing Block Grant program.


Cherokee leaders call for full transcripts

In an effort to increased accuracy and transparency, meetings of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Tribal Council will now be captured with a verbatim transcript.

Council Member Tommye Saunooke presented a resolution to council last week asking that all discussion at budget and Tribal Council meetings be transcribed word for word to keep an accurate history of what happened.

“I don’t want a summary. I want verbatim,” Saunooke said.

The resolution suggested hiring a court reporter for the job.

Council Members Terri Henry, Bo Taylor and B Ensley all voiced their agreement with Saunooke. However, Ensley questioned whether the tribe needed to hire outside help.

“I agree with what Tommye is trying to do here,” Ensley said. “But I am opposed to contracting someone to do this.”

The tribe already has employees who are capable or could learn to take verbatim notes, he argued. In the end, the council unanimously voted to take verbatim notes of its meetings but to contract a current employee to transcribe them.

Council’s monthly meetings are already broadcast on the tribe’s own cable channel as well as online, and are widely viewed.

Cherokee will be the only government entity in the region that offers complete transcripts of government proceedings. Towns and counties keep minutes of meetings, which are written as summaries of what transpired and vary in how comprehensive they are.

— By Caitlin Bowling

Cherokee Tribal Council election attracts deep bench of challengers

All 12 seats on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Tribal Council are up for grabs this year.

Let the battles begin in Cherokee

Cherokee tribal members could vote this April on whether to allow alcoholic beverage sales on the reservation, one month before a similar referendum will be held on legalizing sales countywide in neighboring Jackson County.

Cherokee’s referendum is contingent on Principal Chief Michell Hicks signing off on a resolution passed last week by nine of the 12 Tribal Council members.

Hicks has 30 days from Oct. 24, the day council voted, to make up his mind.

Asked Monday if he would allow the vote to go forward, Hicks said in response: “I don’t know, I’m not sure. I’m still praying on it.”

Hicks might not be able to stop a referendum even if he tries, however. Tribal Council can override the chief if the council has two-thirds majority — which, unless some members reverse their votes, it would. One complicating factor is that tribal council members’ votes are weighted to account for the number of people living in the townships they represent. One vote does not mean one vote, in other words.

Hicks described the decision about whether to try and stop the vote as difficult, one that involves weighing both the “good and the bad” aspects of allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages to be legalized on tribal lands.

“It has to be a determination for all of our people and not just a few of our people,” he said, adding that it’s also important to him that tribal members get some kind of voice in the decision to come. Which is the rub, of course — how best to give them that voice?

If Hicks allows the vote to take place, tribal members will decide these three questions. They could approve all, none, or one or two independently from the others:

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.


How it happened

A resolution calling for an alcohol vote was originally going to be brought before tribal council by the ABC commission of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. There’s an amendment, however, on the official resolution document. It notifies tribal clerks to strike the ABC commission as the origin and simply say state the resolution was Tribal Council-submitted. There is no additional explanation attached.

Chairman of the Cherokee ABC Board Bob Blankenship on Monday said that with neighboring Jackson County looking to vote on the same issue in May, he believed this is an opportune time for people in Cherokee to decide whether to legalize the sale of alcohol there, too.

“Jackson County needs it, we need it, everyone needs it who is involved in the tourism business,” Blankenship said bluntly.

Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment about the possible vote. The Cherokee chamber is hosting an “open forum” for members to discuss the issue Nov. 2 in Cherokee.

The resolution was approved by nine out of the 12 members of Tribal Council, with no one technically voting against it — member Terri Henry was given an official absence to travel; Mike Parker and David Wolfe voted to table the resolution.

Here’s who voted yes: Bo Taylor, Perry Shell, Gene Crowe, Bill Taylor, Jim Owle, Diamond Brown, Adam Wachacha, Alan Ensley and Tommye Saunooke.


In the community

It’s not easy to find someone in Cherokee willing to endorse the sale of alcoholic beverages, not with their name attached to the supporting quote in black and white print, right here and forever in the newspaper.

It’s a cakewalk to interview those in the opposition camp, however. That’s because there’s a sudden swell of anti-alcohol indignation in Cherokee, one tapping into decades and decades of fervently held sentiment. The iron fist in this velvet glove is the 20 or so Baptist churches that call the Qualla Boundary home, united in staunch and fierce opposition to the consumption of alcohol — period, the end, in every case and without exception.

There’s also the touchy subject of alcoholism and diabetes to pair with these fundamental Christian beliefs that predominate among the Cherokee. And about seeing the tribe’s young people thrive and prosper. And, of course, there’s the deep and real respect here for Cherokee’s elders, who traditionally have spoken in one voice — a united “no” — when it comes to legalized sales.

Charla Crowe, 49, agrees with that position.

“I do not want to see alcohol in Cherokee,” Crowe said, sounding the words distinctly and in a fashion that brooked no misunderstandings.

Crowe is a Wolftown resident and owner of the store, Cherokee By Design, which is located across the road from the Tribal Council house.

Asked why, exactly, she’s against alcohol being sold here in Cherokee, Crowe responded: “We were raised here in Cherokee, and it was dry. And I want it to stay that way. We just don’t need alcohol so readily available. I’m a Christian, and that plays a huge part in my decision. We’ve got enough problems for the kids without bringing this right to our door.”

Crowe voted “no” two years ago to allow the sale of alcohol at Harrah’s casino. Walt French, of the Yellowhill community, voted “yes.” Today, he regrets that vote.

“The only way it passed at the casino was because the per capita was supposed to go up, but it sure didn’t happen that way,” French said.

From the revenues the tribe receives from the casino, 50 percent fund tribal government and services. The other 50 percent is split among the tribe’s 14,000 members in the form of two “per capita” checks each year.

Estimates in the days leading up to the 2009 casino-alcohol vote by the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise put the per capita return to tribal members at about $9,000 per person by 2015. In other words, a “yes” vote allowing Harrah’s to sell alcohol meant more business for the casino, and in turn individual riches in an economically strapped region where extra dollars are tough to find.

His flat wallet, however, tells a different tale than what was promised, French said.

“Though I figured a vote would happen after they voted it in at the casino,” he said. Indeed, opponents at the time said allowing alcohol at the casino was a slippery slope that would sooner or later to lead alcohol reservation-wide.

“But I don’t think it’ll pass — I won’t vote for it again,” French said. “(Tribal leaders) made a lot of promises that didn’t happen. You tell a person he’s got $5, but you do this right here and you’ll get $20. Well, people do that; because they need that money in such a bad economy to buy food, pay for electricity.”

And, at 18, Victoria Wolfe, too, opposes the sale of alcoholic beverages on tribal lands.

Soft spoken and shy, Wolfe said simply, “I’m concerned about our kids. Drugs are already bad enough here.”


A timeline

A vote by the Cherokee people on whether to allow alcohol sales reservation-wide has been a long time coming. The last one was held in 1992, but the idea has been toyed with several times since then.

• 1980: A vote on whether to allow alcohol sales on the reservation was defeated 2 to 1.

• 1992: A vote on whether to allow alcohol sales on the reservation was defeated 1,532 to 601.

• 1999: Patrick Lambert, head of the gaming commission, convinced tribal council to hold a referendum on alcohol sales. A groundswell of opposition spurred council members to cancel the referendum before it could be held.

• 2006: The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise appeared before tribal council and asked them to hold a referendum on alcohol sales at the casino. Opposition swiftly mounted a campaign. TCGE withdrew their request before tribal council had a chance to vote on it.

• 2008: The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise appeared before tribal council and asked them to hold a tribal referendum on allowing alcohol sales at the casino only. It narrowly passed tribal council but was vetoed by Chief Michell Hicks.

• 2009: Supporters of a referendum submited a petition with 1,562 signatures. The petition met the threshold for putting the measure on the ballot for a vote. It passed by a surprisingly large majority of 59 to 41 percent.

• 2011: Tribal Council approved a referendum for an April vote on allowing the legal sale of alcoholic beverages on all tribal lands. Hicks has 30 days to decide whether to allow the vote to be held, though Tribal Council can overturn a veto if there are enough votes.


Regional implications of Cherokee alcohol vote huge

A “yes” vote to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages on Cherokee tribal lands will touch many more people than just enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voting in the special election next April.

That’s because the tribe has lands in four Western North Carolina counties: Jackson, Swain, Cherokee and Graham. Of those, Graham County currently stands solitarily as the one county out of North Carolina’s 100 counties that is totally dry. The others have alcohol sales inside town limits, even if the rest of the county does not. But in conservative Graham County, a six-pack of beer or bottle-of-wine are not to be had, even in the county seat of Robbinsville.

Here’s the sorest potential spot in what’s promising to erupt into a hotly argued issue, particularly in Cherokee’s most traditional communities — Big Cove, probably, but almost certainly in the Snowbird community in dry Graham County. Even if a majority of residents in a particular Cherokee community vote against alcohol sales, the door would still open if Cherokee voters overall — reservation-wide, that is — approve the resolution.

“Those are tribal lands,” Principal Chief Michell Hicks said in explanation. “This would be a tribal-wide vote.”

Jackson is dry, but alcohol sales are allowed in Sylva and Dillsboro. Swain is dry, but alcohol is sold in Bryson City. Cherokee County is dry, but alcohol is sold in Murphy and Andrews.

Also in play for tribal alcohol supporters is this fact: The Eastern Band is considering building a satellite mini casino on 200 acres in Cherokee County on tribal lands outside of Andrews. This vote might well open the door to alcohol sales at this hybrid, not-quite-a-casino, but more-than-bingo facility. Cherokee voters in June 2009 approved the sale of alcoholic beverages at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort in downtown Cherokee but not for the rest of the reservation.

— By Quintin Ellison

Wheels of justice turn too slowly for Cherokee’s taste

Weary of criminals languishing in the system before finally facing their day in court, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians hopes to forge a new partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s office, getting their own prosecutor into federal court.

Tribal council this month called on the U.S. Attorney to deputize Cherokee’s tribal prosecutor as a Special Assistant United States Attorney, allowing him to pursue cases in federal court, where many of the more serious crimes committed on the reservation end up.

“It would provide them with a prosecutor that can handle those crimes that occur here, regardless of what kind of crime or where it happened,” said Jason Smith, the tribal prosecutor.

When someone commits a crime in Cherokee, bringing them to justice as a complicated process. Jurisdiction on the reservation can be labyrinthine.

Was the criminal a tribal member? Was the victim? Was it a major crime? Did it happen on the reservation?

It’s so complicated that Smith created a chart to remind him whether an offender should be prosecuted in tribal court or, if they’re not a tribal member or the crime is major, in federal court.

Under the current systems, prosecuting those deemed federal cases fall to the U.S. Attorney in Asheville. But the problem is that he can’t get to them all, and there are some — small-time white collar crimes and the like — that can take a lot longer to reach and fall into a sort of grey area on what cases the feds pick up and what they don’t.

So tribal members who are victimized by non-tribal members — a non-Indian husband abuses his Indian wife or child, for example — they’ve got to rely on the federal court to get their case heard. And it could take a while.

Smith hopes that, if he’s appointed as a special U.S. Attorney, it’ll help move those cases through more quickly. It never hurts, he posits, to have someone with a little more local knowledge and vested local interest following a case through the court system.

“It would help in terms of having closer knowledge of the cases that are going on in tribal court and in federal court,” said Smith. “Despite our best efforts, I don’t always know what’s going on in Asheville with federal cases, and they don’t always know what’s going on in Cherokee with Cherokee cases.”

Cherokee isn’t the only place with these problems. Tribal lands all over the country are faced with the same quandary, any many are in a more precarious situation.

“It’s a bad problem here, but it’s much worse everywhere else,” said Bill Boyum, chief justice at the Cherokee tribal court. By comparison, he said, the situation here is great.

Boyum pointed to tribes out West, some with reservations as large as states, that have one or two federal prosecutors trying to take on every case from an area far too massive and unwieldy for just one person.

“It’s kind-of inherent in the system,” said Boyum. “You would never have that in a state court. You have a state court in every county.”

And over the last year, special U.S. attorneys have been appointed all over the country to deal with the problem. The impetus was a big piece of federal legislation called the Tribal Law and Order Act. Among other things, it recognized that there is problem, and though the law didn’t require special U.S. Attorneys for tribes, it strongly recommended them.

In North Dakota, special U.S. Attorneys were appointed as part of a bigger push to build trust in tribal law enforcement that was waning. Elsewhere, they’ve been appointed just to deal with the growing backlog of cases that harried prosecutors don’t have enough time to handle.

The Eastern Band has been having conversations, both in the government and the community, about what a boon this would be to the effort to decrease crime on the reservation.

But they’re still waiting for the federal government to act.

Don Gast, the U.S. Attorney in Asheville who handles Cherokee cases kicked to federal court, said that he wasn’t ready to comment on what Smith would do, if appointed, or how the system would work — who would take which cases, how would cases be prioritized?

He did, however, say that his office is working on a decision. He’ll be making an official announcement “in the near future,” he said, but didn’t specify when.

If he is appointed, Smith said he would probably need another hand or two to keep up with the tribal caseload. He stepped up to lead prosecutor from the assistant prosecutor role when former tribal prosecutor Roy Wijewickrama won a spot as a district court judge last November. His former post still hasn’t been filled.

Smith has been using contract lawyers to shoulder the caseload, but taking on federal cases, too, would probably create the need for more contractors or another prosecutor altogether.

He’s waiting for the official announcement, though, before thinking too much about its ramifications. Being deputized to try cases in federal court would be better for the tribe, even if someone else had to be hired to pick up the slack in tribal court.

And now it’s just a waiting game, while the U.S. Attorney’s office decide if they’ll honor the tribe’s request.

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