The stakes couldn’t be higher for the tribe’s 13,500 members. The winner will oversee government services, represent tribal members from Wolfetown to the White House and wield control over the region’s largest privately owned cash-cow, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
None of that power seems to impress 60-year-old Yahnie Squirrell of the Yellowhill community, however. Squirrell hasn’t decided who will get her vote in the June 7 primary, but she knows the qualities she’s looking for in a principal chief.
“I want someone that listens to us small people, who tells us what’s going on,” Squirrell said.
Election nuts and bolts
The chief’s race currently consists of Hicks, who has served one term; Carroll “PeeWee” Crowe, a former vice chief; Patrick Lambert, executive director of the tribal gaming commission; Rob Saunooke, a lawyer; and Bill Killian, who launched his campaign via the Internet at easternband.com, a Web site popular with tribe members for its irreverent look at tribal government.
In addition to the chief’s position, filing opens for the vice chief’s position and all 12 council seats. Each of the six communities that make up the Cherokee Indian Reservation elect two representatives. Filing ends April 2, said Election Clerk Tamara Thompson. The general election is Sept. 6.
Casino changed election landscape
Wanting to know what’s going on — and suspecting that maybe they don’t — is a reservation refrain this election.
A decade ago it wasn’t that difficult for tribal members to feel informed about the inner workings of their government. That changed when the casino opened in late 1997. These days, with high-powered deals such as the recently announced $650 million casino expansion and renovation, much of the decision making has moved behind closed doors and has far-reaching implications for every member of the tribe. Sometimes those closed doors aren’t even in Cherokee, but are far removed to Raleigh and Washington.
“I have to pick up a newspaper to find things out,” said Lisa Montelongo, also of the Yellowhill community. “Everybody in Western North Carolina knows our business before we do. It just flips me out.”
Montelongo said she’s looking for a change in the tribe’s leadership.
Working for the people
John Squirrell, Yahnie Squirrell’s husband, didn’t specify who he’s leaning toward for chief. He’s a longtime casino opponent who feels that downtown Cherokee is being destroyed.
“I was always against it and they’re still shoving it down our throats,” he said.
Like his wife, Squirrell feels that tribal members aren’t kept informed about what the government is doing.
“I want a good chief that works for all the people, not just certain people,” he said.
Some in Cherokee, however, have openly selected who will get their vote. Jerry Wolfe made up his mind by watching Hicks over the past four years. At 82, Wolfe is one of the elders tribal members respect and rely on for guidance. Wolfe said there hasn’t been a “mishap” involving Hicks since he took office, and he hopes that the tribe’s members will grant the current chief another term.
“He has a lot of work started, and I think he should go back in and finish what he’s planned,” Wolfe said.
Hicks won election thanks in part to absentee votes mailed by voters living off the reservation. That won’t be possible this time around. Except in extenuating circumstances, recently adopted regulations require that the tribe’s approximately 6,125 registered voters show up at the polls to cast their ballots.
Enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee who needs to make a registration change or register to vote should call Election Clerk Tamara Thompson at 828.497.4953.
What’s open: Chief, vice chief, 12 council members
Filing starts: March 1
Filing ends: April 2
Primary date: June 7
General Election: Sept. 6