Several raceways were completely submerged in water, hundreds of thousands of trout laid dead on the ground, and the national trout hatchery in Cherokee lost nearly two-thirds of its stock. That was the picture of the hatchery in Cherokee not even one year ago when heavy rains sent a 10-foot wall of water washed over it.

“It was bad. It was real bad,” said Robert Blankenship, manager of the Cherokee fish hatchery and stocking program. “It was devastating to the staff.”

Now, after less than a year, the hatchery is well on its way to recovery. Blankenship estimates that the hatchery will once again be self-sustaining, hatching and raising all its own trout, by late May.

The hatchery plays a critical role in Cherokee’s reputation as prized fishing grounds. The sheer number and size of the trout stocked in Cherokee’s streams and rivers have led to a successful and viable fishing tourism industry — one the tribe was determined to uphold even in the wake of the natural disaster.

During the flood, the hatchery lost more than $160,000 worth of trout and 16 to 18 inches of silt sat at the bottom of each raceway — the long, narrow pools where the trout live. Employees spent the first couple of months collecting the dead trout, scrapping mud, rocks and logs from the raceways and sorting the surviving fish by type and size. Then, it was time to start rebuilding its trout supply. Since it takes a year to raise a mid-sized trout, or two years to raise a trophy trout, the natural disaster could have had long-term repercussions, affecting the number of trout being stocked in Cherokee waters for some time.

Luckily, however, a cooperative arrangement with other nationally certified hatcheries entitled the Cherokee hatchery to any surplus fish or fish eggs that the others might have. Hatchery workers traveled across the U.S. gathering them.

Had it not received aid from other national hatcheries, the hatchery in Cherokee would have spent at least two years trying to regain its composure rather than 10 months.

“We’ve had a lot of support and assistance,” Blankenship said.

Eleven national hatcheries in Georgia, Tennessee, Montana, Wisconsin, Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia have been crucial to the recovery.

He estimated that the hatchery has received more than 1.5 million trout and fish eggs from the other hatcheries.

“That is a major part of us trying to rebuild,” Blankenship said. “The more we can get, the more we can put in the river, the more it’s going to help out our program.”

The hatchery must constantly be birthing baby trout to replace the larger fish that it tosses into the river every day to maintain Cherokee’s status in the fishing world.

The tribe’s stocks 30 miles of river and stream on the reservation with 400,000 fish per year.

“For years, people have loved to come to Cherokee for vacation and enjoying the streams and rivers is a major part of their fun,” said Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. “The fishing here in Cherokee is some of the best east of the Mississippi and as more people come here to fish the better our hotels, restaurants and other retail shops will do.”

The hatchery currently has about 2 million eggs and baby trout incubating in its smaller indoor raceways and about 800,000 in its larger outdoor raceway. However, six of the usually full raceways sit empty, and the hatchery will not be self-sustaining until next month.

The hatchery is receiving about $100,000 from a federal government relief program and Bureau of Indian Affairs to help with its recovery. A portion of the money will help the hatchery help prevent such a disaster from occurring again by reinforcing already existing water barriers and adding more or larger piping to allow more water to drain away from hatchery lands.

The changes will help “but you will never be able to control Mother Nature,” Blankenship said.

Before Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel, one of the tribe’s main attractions was trout fishing. The Oconaluftee River has 2.2 miles of water specifically devoted to catch-and-release, fly fishing and hosts numerous tournaments throughout the year.

And now that it has nearly recovered, the hatchery hopes to bring fishing to the forefront once again by keeping the river open year-round and using an electronic system to keep track of and issue fishing permits. Previously, anglers had to receive a handwritten permit each visit — a time-consuming task.

“We are trying to rebuild fishing here in Cherokee,” Blankenship said. “That’s our goal — to make it one of the best family trout fishing destinations.”

This year, the Oconaluftee River will be open year-round for the first time. While it only closed for three weeks each year, the hope is that the prospect of quality, year-round fishing will attract visitors who will then spend money at Cherokee’s various businesses.

“People’s got to buy gas. They got to buy snacks. They’ve got to have a place to stay,” Blankenship said.

 

Events

• Cherokee's Summer Kickoff Trout Fishing Tournament: April 27, 28, & 29

• Meet Me in the Smokies Fly Fishing Tournament: May 18, 19 & 20

• US Junior National Fly Fishing Championships: June 22, 23 & 24

• Cherokee's Mid Summer Trout Fishing Tournament: July 13, 14 & 15

• Cherokee's End of Summer Trout Fishing Tournament: September 7, 8 & 9

• Rumble in the Rhododendron Fly Fishing Tournament: November 2, 3 & 4

• How long is your trout?

ongoing - Bring your trout to the Cherokee Welcome Center and have it measured for the weekly contest which will run from Saturday to Sunday. You must present a hotel or camping receipt to qualify for this contest.

The Catch & Release water is excluded.

For more information on these events, visit www.fishcherokee.com

In one week, enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will choose to either lift a historic ban on alcohol or maintain its dry status in a vote that has traditionally sparked fervor on both sides.

On April 12, enrolled members will head to the polls for the first time in two decades to vote on legalizing alcohol sales. But in the run-up to the election, the debate has remained surprisingly non-contentious compared to previous years when the alcohol issue has arisen.

 

The proponents

While an anti-alcohol movement is still present on the reservation, compared to previous years, its omnipotent voice has been less prominent this time around — signaling a possible philosophical shift among enrolled members.

In the past, a large majority of enrolled members fell on the opposing side — overwhelmingly rejecting a similar measure by a 3-to-1 margin two decades ago and in other years stopping a vote before it could even take place.

Simply having the opportunity to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ denotes “a remarkable change in culture,” said Don Rose, a retired business executive and former vice chair of the tribal ABC board.

“It will probably pass,” Rose said. “The people who I talk to are by and large for it.”

However, Rose admitted that those staunchly opposed to the referendum would be less inclined to talk to him since he has openly advocated for a ‘yes’ vote.

From his point-of-view, it won’t lead to an increase in drinking, Rose said. People who want alcohol now will find it no matter what — which usually means driving in to Bryson City — a fact that referendum supporters say leads to more drunken driving.

“I think people see the logic,” Rose said. “Prohibition does not work.”

If people are allowed to buy alcohol in Cherokee, many local residents will opt to drink in the safety of their home, supporters have said.

For years, various leaders in Cherokee have championed the idea of making the reservation a year-round destination for vacationers. However, business owners have said that destination status is unattainable without alcohol, and they have lost customers because the reservation is dry.

“The realization (is) that if we are going to be able to compete … then we have to provide the amenities that they expect to see,” Rose said.

If visitors can order a beer or glass of wine with their dinners out, then they will be more likely to stay and spend their money in Cherokee — giving the reservation an economic boost.

Revenue from the alcohol sales could also help pay for substance abuse education and prevention as well as a rehabilitation center for addicts. Plans for a rehab center have long been discussed, but no blueprints have ever been drawn up.

Rose is a member of a “vote yes” campaign committee, mostly comprised of Cherokee business owners, who have organized to advocate for the referendum’s approval. The group has taken out ads in newspapers and traveled around the reservation talking to enrolled members.

A few days before the vote, the committee will hold a phone bank reminding people to vote and asking them to approve the referendum.

And, even if the referendum is struck down, alcohol could still find its way to the Cherokee’s doorstep. Jackson County is voting on a similar measure during the May primary. If approved, an ABC store or gas stations selling beer could open up along the border of the reservation anyway, which lies partly in Jackson County.

 

The opponents

Enrolled members have a long history of opposing the sale of alcohol on the reservation. Many cite religious convictions and a trend of alcoholism among the Cherokee as reasons to continue its dry spell.

“I am definitely against it,” said Greg Morgan, pastor at Rock Springs Baptist Church in Cherokee. “It takes people’s lives downhill.”

Morgan said he has enough experience working with families affected by alcoholism to know that it does more harm than good. Money needed for food goes to booze instead. It leads to increased rates of domestic violence and causes people to act abnormally, from drunken driving to public intoxication.

Easier access to alcohol will only translate to more problems rather than greater control over the substance, Morgan said.

“I don’t think that anybody can control alcohol,” Morgan said.

And, any possible economic benefits of selling alcohol on the reservation would be negated by the harm it would cause enrolled members, Morgan said. An individual’s life is worth more than any money earned from the sales, and Cherokee can prosper without alcohol to boost its bottom line.

“The sellers are trying to make it like Cherokee is not going to survive without alcohol,” Morgan said.

Morgan accused supporters of using the allure of bigger casino disbursements to convince some enrolled members, particularly the youth, to vote “yes.”

Tribal members receive a cut of casino profits. If alcohol leads to an increase in tourism, that will in turn benefit the casino, and the twice-annual per cap checks will go up, so the argument goes. But, that doesn’t hold water, Morgan said.

A similar claim was made in 2009 when a majority of the tribe voted to allow alcohol sales only on the premise of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. However, per cap checks have yet to show the increases that were promised, said members of the anti-alcohol movement.

Although he has not dedicated any more time to preaching about the dangers of alcohol since tribal council approved the referendum, Morgan said he will spend some time reviewing what the Bible states about the hard stuff with his parishioners this week leading up to the vote.

“In the Bible, it says we should not drink,” Morgan said.

Although one Bible story says Jesus turned water into wine, Morgan said that the fruit of the vine, as it is referred to in the story, was not fermented, meaning the drink was more like a grape juice rather than an intoxicating wine.

He and other opponents of the referendum, including other religious leaders, have already posted signs outside of their churches and businesses asking people to vote ‘no.’ Yard signs reading say “no to greed” are also placed around the reservation.

As for the vote in neighboring Jackson County in May, Morgan said that it is not his business.

“That’s their prerogative,” Morgan said.

 

The long history

Until the ballots are counted on April 12, it is difficult to predict how members of the Eastern Band will vote on the alcohol referendum — an issue with a long, controversial history.

Here’s a brief look back:

• In 1992, a ballot measure to allow reservation-wide alcohol sales was defeated 1,532 to 601.

• In 1996, gaming commission director Patrick Lambert, requested tribal council members to consider holding another vote. However, an overwhelming amount of opposition forced tribal leaders to renege, and the vote was never held.

• In 2006, a similar series of events occurred when the idea was floated to allow alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino but not anywhere else on the reservation. Tribal council shied away from the issue, and a vote was never held.

• In 2009, a petition drive landed the issue on the ballot. A surprising majority — 59 percent of those who voted — agreed to allow alcohol sales at the casino only. Opponents characterized it as the first step toward reservation-wide alcohol sales — a prediction that may or may not come to fruition next week.

• In late October last year, tribal council agreed to put reservation-wide alcohol sales to a vote of the people.

But, the Rev. Noah Crowe convinced tribal council members to modify the referendum’s wording to let each of the six communities in Cherokee vote on the issue for themselves, allowing one community to approve it but others not.

Gov. Bev Perdue and leaders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have headed back to their respective sides of the negotiating tables to tweak the landmark agreement that would permit table games, real cards and live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

The agreement would give the state a cut of gaming revenue in exchange for a promise of exclusivity, namely a pledge that the state wouldn’t allow any other casinos in the immediate region. The agreement is now being tweaked in hopes of satisfying legislators in the General Assembly who have yet to sign off on the deal since it was inked by the tribe and Perdue last November.

“The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been working diligently with the governor and the General Assembly on a new compact that will allow for live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino,” said Chief Michell Hicks in a statement. “We hope to have the new compact approved soon and be ready to take this important issue in front of the North Carolina General Assembly in the upcoming short session.”

It is still unclear exactly what portions of the compact the tribe and Perdue are hoping to renegotiate. Republican leaders in the General Assembly and Perdue had previously disagreed on whether the revenue the state collects from the tribe should go into a dedicated fund for education, as Perdue wanted, or into the general budget, which Republican legislators wanted.

The deal struck between the tribe and Perdue was the product of years of lobbying and negotiating. The clock is now ticking to get it finalized given Perdue’s announcement that she will not be seeking another term.

The tribe and governor’s office seem confident an agreement will be reached soon and the deal will get the necessarly rubber stamp from the General Assembly.

“We’ve got 10 months and an entire legislative session yet to go,” said Mark Johnson, a press officer for Perdue, in an email.

It is unclear whether the tribe would have to start back over at Square One if a new governor came into office before the agreement is finalized by the General Assembly.

Techincally, the compact already signed between the governor and the tribe is good for 30 years. Even if the General Assembly doesn’t approve it this year, it could still do so next year, or the next year, without the agreement going back to the new governor’s desk for approval.

But, a new governor could gum up the works if he wanted to, by vetoing it after the General Assmebly passes — making getting it passed before Perdue leaves office the safest bet for the tribe.

Hicks has spent his eight years in office working toward a deal, which would mean hundreds of new jobs, thousands of new tourists and millions dollars more flowing through Western North Carolina.

“If approved, this will bring more than 400 jobs to the boundary and help to create additional revenue for the casino, which will result in a positive impact not only for the Eastern Band but also for the state of North Carolina,” Hicks said.

Meanwhile, casino management is getting its ducks in a row so it will be ready to roll out live dealers if and when the General Assembly gives its blessing.

“We are looking at the many, many things that would have to happen if that is passed,” said Brooks Robinson, general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee. “We aren’t pulling too many triggers on it but we are monitoring the situation.”

The Eastern Band and Perdue initially signed a compact in late November. They had hoped the General Assembly would vote on the issue before it took its winter recess. But, Republican leaders rebuked the idea, saying they did not have adequate time to review the agreement before the break.

According to the November version of the compact, Cherokee will give the state 4 percent of gross revenue off new table games for the first five years, 5 percent for the next five, 6 percent for the next five, 7 percent for the next five and 8 percent for the final 10 years of the 30-year gaming compact.

Perdue wants the money to be placed in a trust fund and funneled directly to public education in K-12 classrooms across the state based on student population. GOP party leadership, however, wants the money to go directly into the state’s general fund with no special strings attached.

In return, the tribe would be allowed add live gaming and receive exclusive gaming territory west of I-26 in Asheville. The tribe wanted a larger swath of exclusive territory, but the state would not yield.

The tribe has reaped about $226 million a year off the casino recently. Half funds tribal government — from education to housing to health care — while half goes to tribe members in the form of per capita payments.

— Staff writer Becky Johnson contributed to this story

For musicians, it's the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For football players, it's the Super Bowl championship rings. For Natalie Smith, having her signature coffee blends featured at The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., is the greatest accolade.

"I was extremely flattered, and I was elated — all of the good things. Grateful that I can represent my tribe," said Smith, owner of Tribal Grounds in Cherokee and a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.

In December last year, the museum approached Smith out of the blue about their idea to transform a high-end gift shop in the lobby into an espresso and coffee bar. Smith sent samples of her coffee to the museum and soon learned that Tribal Grounds had been chosen to be the sole provider for the new Mitsitam Espresso Coffee Bar in the Museum of the American Indian.

Mitsitam means, "Let's eat" in the native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples and is also the name of the museum's restaurant.

Like so many titleholders, Smith's road to glory started years earlier.

When Smith returned to Cherokee from Arizona in the early 2000s, she noticed something missing — a casual meeting place, not just for visitors but for locals as well. There was already an in-and-out coffee joint but nowhere for people to sit and stay for a while.

"I saw a need for a community space," Smith said.

In 2004, she opened Tribal Grounds. During the first couple of years, Smith purchased pre-roasted coffee beans that could simply be ground and brewed. An artist by trade, Smith took a bean roasting class and began roasting and concocting her own blends in 2006.

Fast forward about a year later, and the coffee shop had the first of its new specialty javas.

"You have to try different blends. It's like a cookie recipe or any baking recipe," Smith said.

Currently, Tribal Grounds has six or seven signature blends, each created by merging different varieties of coffee beans at different degrees and for different lengths of time. And, the available mixtures are always changing as Smith crafts new recipes.

Each specialized mix has a name of cultural significance. For example, the espresso blend is named Rattlesnake Mountain after the mountain that overlooks all of Cherokee.

Rattlesnake Mountain is said to be a special place where the medicine man Ogv Unitsi killed the poisonous serpent Uktena and received a magical crystal that had been set in the snake's forehead. The gem, which blazed like a star, made Ogv the most powerful medicine man of his time.

The most important part of the coffee-making process for Smith, however, is not how long she roasts the beans or how much of each variety she adds to the mix, but where she gets her coffee beans from. Smith purchases the beans used in her cups of joe from fair-trade companies in South American or Africa that employ mostly indigenous people rather than large-scale, commercial plantations.

"I think it's the best quality, that it has integrity," Smith said.

Plus, it gives greater meaning to her business.

"I am an indigenous person buying coffee from indigenous people selling coffee to indigenous people," Smith said.

Smith does her own research of coffee bean growers but also relies on various organizations to certify the product she purchases as fair trade.

"I am not continuing the cycle of exploitation," Smith said. "It is very important to me."

Smith traveled to the Museum of the American Indian in February to train the staff there on how to brew her coffee and assemble her other specialty beverages.

"I am very impressed by their approach and their enthusiasm," she said.

And once there, the indigenous connection for Smith grew stronger.

Smith said she was elated to meet some of the Ethiopian members of the museum's café staff and tell them that some of her beans are grown in their native land.

The Swain County Board of Elections has decided to continue running a satelite early voting site in Cherokee, but to the chagrin of some nixed for now the idea of an additional site in the rural Alarka community.

The Swain County commissioners this week approved the election board’s request for $2,600 to run an early voting site in Cherokee for two weeks prior to the May primary election.

However, the election board decided not to pursue an early voting site catering to residents in the remote communities of Alarka and Nantahala.

Swain first ran an early voting location in Cherokee during 2010 but has debated for the past month whether it was worth the cost to do so again this year. Without the extra site, Cherokee residents must drive anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to reach the main early voting site in Bryson City. Jackson County has historically provided an early voting site in Cherokee for residents on the Jackson side of the reservation.

The Cherokee site will also make early voting more convenient for voters in Whittier, which is closer to Cherokee than Bryson City.

“That portion of the county was underserved,” said Mark Tyson, a member of the Board of Elections. “There had been a lot of community response made to the board.”

Residents of Alarka and Nantahala have similarly long treks, but the Board of Elections determined that it did not have enough time to adequately set up a brand new early voting site.

“It would be tougher to do a site in the western part of the county,” Tyson said, “given the short of amount of time that we had and the limited resources.” The election board decided to revisit the idea of a West Swain site next year.

Commissioner David Monteith suggested the election board go ahead and ask for money for both sites, but they felt it was too late to prepare both in time for early voting.

“I challenged them on it and told them they should do so, but they didn’t want to do it,” Monteith said.

Monteith said county residents would have liked to see the additional site in West Swain and that the election board should have dealt with the issue earlier.

“They could have come to us a month ago,” he said. “They just weren’t thinking ahead.”

 

Early voting request, take two

The Board of Elections members had to appear before the commissioners twice in the past week over the issue. The first time, the election board did not come with a clear request but instead presented an open-ended question to commissioners on which sites they wanted to fund.

“So you all have not decided exactly what you want to get? You are speculating?” said Commissioner David Monteith.

Board of Elections Chair James Fisher explained that the election board had avoided making a hard and fast request because they did not want to put the final decision on the backs of the commissioners.

“I felt like it was unfair to y’all,” Fisher said.

Monteith replied that the commissioners would be answerable to the final decision anyway.

“Would it not be better for you guys to make a decision on what you want?” Monteith said. “I would rather know exactly what you want.”

Commissioners told the election board to return once they had nailed down what specifically it wanted the county to fund. The election board came back five days later with its specific request — namely to fund the site in Cherokee but not Alarka.

When the Swain County Board of Elections first offered an early voting site in Cherokee in 2010, the turnout was poor, with only 226 people taking advantage of the new location. “That’s not to say that it won’t be successful this go around,” Fisher said.

Board of election members said the site may just need more time to gain a following but also questioned whether the county can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a previously underused early voting site. The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010.

“We are letting these people down by not getting them where they need to vote,” said resident Barbara Robinson.

The Swain County Board of Elections first approached the Board of Commissioners after realizing that it didn’t have enough money in its budget this year to run more than the single early voting site in Cherokee.

Counties once got a small contribution from the federal government to help fund early votings, but the state legislature for now is refusing to pony up the required state match, which means counties would not get the assistance this year.

“It is thrown on the backs of the counties,” said Phil Carson, chairman of the board of commissioners. “The taxpayers are footing the bill.”

The historic Cherokee trails in Jackson County and the surrounding areas will be highlighted during program held at 7 p.m., Tuesday, March 6 at the Jackson County Public Library.

Lamar Marshall, cultural heritage director of Wild South, will be the presenter. Marshall has researched and mapped historic trails in the Southeast for more than 40 years, and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation has funded the Cherokee trails research in Western North Carolina for the last two years.

The early Indian trails evolved as the result of thousands of years of Native Americans’ interactions with animals, tribal migration, relocations, population shifts and lifestyle changes due to European contact and trade.

Geographical features were the key factors that led to the establishment and development of village sites and trail locations. Dividing ridges, passes and gaps, springs, river shoals, shallows, waterfalls, fords, and valleys all determined ultimately where trails were established.

“Where these trails remain visible today, old beech trees with carvings and trail marker trees might still be found nearby,” Marshall said. “Abandoned segments meander through fields and forests, and loops that followed the natural contours of the land can be found veering off of paved highways.”

828.586.2016.

More than a year has lapsed since 15-month-old Aubrey Kina Marie Littlejohn died on the floor of an unheated single-wide trailer in Cherokee one frigid January night, but it could be several more months before the state conducts a child fatality review required by law in such cases.

Swain County Department of Social Services alerted the state to the suspicious child death the day after Aubrey died in January 2011, but the mandatory case review hasn’t been started yet because of a statewide backlog. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services formally accepted the case for a child fatality review last April, but the review has not been scheduled yet, according to Lori Watson, a spokesperson for the state agency in Raleigh.

Ideally, a child fatality review can help prevent future tragedies. It is supposed to detect where social safety nets failed and whether there are cracks in the system that need fixing.

In Aubrey’ case, it seems there will be plenty to learn from such a review. Cops, neighbors, family members and social workers all came in contact with Aubrey’s caretaker and noticed red flags, from violent behavior and suspected drug use to poor living conditions and even visual signs of abuse.

The child fatality review is not intended to find fault, nor is it a witch-hunt to hold anyone responsible, Watson said. The state in particular is interested in whether new policies or protocols could have saved the child’s life.

It is a learning exercise that taps the insight of anyone who may have interacted with the child — teachers, daycare workers, pediatricians, friends, family and social workers — to determine what could be done differently in the future.

“They will bring all those people together that had been involved in that child’s life,” Watson said.

By design, the case review isn’t conducted on the heels of a child’s death.

“They try to plan them so they give the community an opportunity to heal and people can come back to the table and take an objective approach to looking at the case,” Watson said.

But, a year and counting is longer than it should be in an ideal world. It could be several more months yet before it is conducted.

Watson said the agency is facing a backlog of its child fatality reviews. Watson cited staff turnover and unfilled positions at the state level as reasons the agency got behind.

The child fatality review will likely determine why social workers had forcibly removed other children from the home where Aubrey was living but allowed Aubrey to stay. Social workers had documented inappropriate use of physical discipline against Aubrey when she was just a year old. In addition to bruises on Aubrey, there were also signs she wasn’t developing like a baby of her age should, but she was not being taken to the doctor for check-ups.

Cops had been to the residence multiple times, according to dispatch records. Neighbors witnessed violent behavior in the yard of the home and noted children fending for themselves.

 

Swain DSS records in baby’s death to remain sealed

Prosecutors in a second-degree murder and felony child abuse case in Swain County have sealed social service records for fear they could compromise the on-going investigation or the ability to prosecute the case.

Prosecutors have told the Swain County Department of Social Services not to release records that would normally be made public surrounding the death of 15-month-old Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, who died more than a year ago. Ladybird Powell, Aubrey’s great-aunt and caretaker, was charged in connection with her death this month.

Since DSS records are highly personal — often revealing private aspects of family life, emotional state and financial status — they are all confidential.

There is an exception, however, when criminal charges surround a child’s death. In such cases, DSS is supposed to release a summary of the agency’s involvement with the child, describing whether social workers had the child’s well-being on their radar and what steps, if any, were taken to investigate or improve the child’s safety and care.

The district attorney’s office has the authority to block the release of the records if it is deemed a risk to the criminal case, however.

In this case, the prosecutor has done just that, citing the highly unusual circumstances of a separate yet parallel case against two social workers. The workers allegedly falsified records following the child’s death, presumably to conceal whether the agency properly followed up on complaints of abuse and neglect, according to a State Bureau of Investigation probe.

Whether social workers did their job or failed to intervene and protect Aubrey has been a source of heated and emotional controversy. The records, if released, would reveal whether social workers acted on reports of suspected abuse and neglect — assuming the records provide an accurate picture.

But releasing those records that describe DSS involvement in Aubrey’s case could compromise a fair trail in the separate case against the social workers, since their involvement — or lack of involvement — is at the heart of that case.

The release of records would “jeopardize the state’s ongoing investigation” and “jeopardize the state’s ability to prosecute” the case, the district attorney’s office told Swain DSS when blocking the release of the documents.

Swain County commissioners will have to decide in coming weeks whether to pony up $3,000 to $5,000 for an early voting site in Cherokee this election.

The Swain County Board of Elections doesn't have the money in its budget this year to run an early voting site in Cherokee as it did in 2010. The election board decided last week to pass the decision up the chain to county commissioners.

The election board also has given county commissioners the option of funding another early voting site at the West Swain County Fire Department to serve the Alarka, Almond and Nantahala areas.

The cost of running the sites would be between $6,000 and $12,000, said Joan Weeks, director of Swain County's Board of Elections. Right now, the only early voting site would be at the board of elections office in Bryson City.

Board of Elections Chairman James Fisher seemed confident that the commissioners would approve their request and then the board could move forward with election preparations.

"We are going to appear before the county commissioners and get the funding," Fisher said.

All three election board members have declared their support for continuing to operate the early voting site in Cherokee as long as they can line up the funding.

"I am still very hopeful we can make this happen," said board member Mark Tyson. "It would be sad if it didn't."

Tyson wanted the election board to go ahead and vote last week on the additional early voting sites. He made a motion to approve the early voting sites in Cherokee and West Swain pending funding from the county commissioners.

But, the other two election board members felt it was more appropriate to simply ask commissioners first.

"I felt like Mr. Tyson was trying to create a problem," Fisher said. "It would have backed the commissioners in a corner."

Board of Election officials will make their request at the next county commissioners meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 28. And, at least some county commissioners are open to the idea of contributing to the early voting sites.

"I fully support the tribe having a voting precinct," said Commissioner David Monteith. "I think they should have a place to vote."

Commissioner Steve Moon, on the other hand, was more hesitant, saying he wants to discuss the issue with the other commissioners before deciding whether the $6,000 to $12,000 investment is worth it.

"That's a lot of money," Moon said. "That is not something we need to rush into."

County Commissioner Donnie Dixon agreed that the board must meet to talk about the issue collectively but was more optimistic that it might vote in favor of funding the sites.

"That is very possible," said Commissioner Dixon.

After addressing the county commissioners, election officials are planning to meet with tribal council leaders to update them on the issue.

Cherokee leaders have indicated that they would like the early voting site to operate again this election year and are willing to offer the county Internet services and a building on the reservation free of charge.

The request for an early voting site in West Swain came up for the first time this year.

Former elections board member John Herrin filed a formal request with the Board of Elections for a site located at the West Swain County Fire Department in Almond. The location would offer residents near the Nantahala Gorge and Alarka a closer place to vote. Currently, residents must drive into Bryson City — a 20- to 30-minute trip — in order to cast their ballot early.

"It is my intent in requesting this that it will inherently make the 'Right to Vote' much easier for the registered voters of Swain County," wrote Herrin in his request. "This would as well relieve some of the workload on the Election Day for very possibly the whole county."

 

Which costs more, time or money?

When the Swain County Board of Elections first offered an early voting site in Cherokee in 2010, the turnout was poor, with only 226 people taking advantage of the new location. Board of election members said the site may just need more time to gain a following but also questioned whether the county can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a previously underused early voting site. The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010.

Without the additional location, Cherokee residents will again have to drive to the Swain County election office in Bryson City if they want to vote early — a more than 20-minute trek. And, for those living in the far reaches of Cherokee's Big Cove community, the trip is more like 30 to 40 minutes.

However, Cherokee residents aren't the only ones in Swain County who face a long haul into Bryson City to take advantage of early voting. People in Alarka and Nantahala have similar distances to drive. Residents of that area travel about 21 miles, or about 30 minutes, to cast early ballots.

Residents of western Swain County have indicated that they would like an early voting site as well. But, a formal request for an additional location was not submit to the Board of Elections until this year.

Pity the poor visitors trying to find their ways to Cherokee if the N.C. Department of Transportation heeds requests of local leaders in Haywood and Jackson counties when it comes to directional signs.

First, Jackson County wanted a “This way Cherokee” sign added in Haywood County that would bring visitors past their own doorstep en route to Cherokee rather than through Maggie Valley via U.S. 19.

More recently, in what smacks of tongue-in-cheek retaliation — though Maggie Valley officials might be perfectly serious, given that small town’s current economic woes — Haywood County sent an official request that the DOT install a sign along U.S. 441 in Dillsboro that would helpfully inform travelers from the Atlanta area they can actually reach Cherokee by coming back through Waynesville and Maggie Valley.

Amusing, perhaps, but here’s the time-travel differences for motorists: Dillsboro to Cherokee via U.S. 441 is 14 miles and takes fewer than 20 minutes. Dillsboro to Cherokee via Waynesville and Maggie Valley is 45 miles and takes about an hour.

Possible? Yes. Circuitous? Definitely.

“That’s crazy,” said John Marsh of Decatur, Ga., after listening to a CliffsNotes version of the now three-month old sign squabble. Marsh was in Dillsboro this past weekend with a friend on one of his frequent visits to this area.

“That probably seems funny to everybody to talk about, but it isn’t if you don’t know this area and how to get around. It’s confusing,” he said.

Theresa Brady, visiting the area for the first time from her home in northern Virginia, said she relies on GPS information and highway directional signs to guide her travels.

Brady was at the Huddle House in Dillsboro with friends. They’d stopped to eat on their way to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

“I don’t know what all that’s about, but it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Signs should tell you the safest and fastest” route.

Her traveling companion, Jane Langley, agreed, saying she’d found navigating Western North Carolina difficult enough without the potential added burden of directional sign games.

“It sounds ridiculous,” Langley said.

 

Dillsboro reacts  

Shop owners in Dillsboro seem sympathetic toward Maggie Valley’s economic struggle to survive following the latest round of death convulsions by the theme park Ghost Town in the Sky. Dillsboro experienced something similar when Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in 2008 moved its headquarters to Bryson City and cut train routes to the small town.

Interestingly or ironically or both, railroad owner Al Harper was heavily invested in the most recent failed attempt to revive Ghost Town. One could even say Harper broke the hearts of two small WNC towns.

Be that as it may, however, the Dillsboro shop owners didn’t particularly care for the potential confusion visitors to the region would experience if the DOT pandered to Haywood County and Maggie Valley’s for an alternative sign leading Cherokee travelers the long-way around.

“The whole thing sounds pretty silly,” said Travis Berning, a potter and co-owner of Tree House Pottery on Front Street in Dillsboro. “That’s kind of a long way around to go through Haywood — (the sign) needs to show the most direct route.”

That, however, is exactly the contention of Maggie Valley leaders when it comes to Jackson County’s request for a second sign on their turf. In Haywood, the route to Cherokee through Maggie is shorter than the one through Jackson County, prompting Maggie to rebuke Jackson’s sign request there.

But, Renae Spears, a Bryson City resident who has the Kitchen Shop on the main drag in Dillsboro, pointed out that the road to Cherokee through Maggie is curvy and narrow.

“Obviously, from Dillsboro to Cherokee it is four lanes, which is the quickest and safest way to get there,” Spears said. “And if I direct anyone to Cherokee, that’s exactly the way I send them.”

And while she was on the subject of which way to Cherokee, Spears added that when headed west from Asheville she prefers to use four-lane highway if going to the reservation. Not, she said, U.S. 19’s mainly two-lane route via Maggie Valley to Cherokee.

“It’s not as safe or direct,” Spears said in explanation.  

This raging sign dispute started simply enough, when Jackson County governmental and tourism leader were reviewing state data and discovered the county’s visitation numbers were below par when compared with neighboring communities. That led to a flurry of activity intended to pump up those visitation stats.

Not surprisingly, Jackson County decided it needed a cut of the 3.5 million visitors who make their way to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino each year. The tribe supports Jackson County’s request.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said last week he was astounded that what seemed such a simple request had snowballed into a multi-town, multi-county, even regional dispute.

“I had no idea it would cause such a stir,” Wooten said.

Wooten added he’d recently told Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown that if he had known about the ensuing uproar to come, he’d never have written to Waynesville Manager Lee Galloway asking for the town’s backing on a new directional sign. Wooten did not say, however, that the county would have backed one iota away from making the request directly to DOT.

Anyone can run or bike. And if any two people could testify to that, it’s Gerri Grady and Hugh Lambert.

Both Grady and Lambert have used exercise to overcome health problems. Now, both are leaders in two separate exercise- and social-centric clubs in Cherokee, aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles among members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Back in the 1990s, Grady, a founding member of the Cherokee Runners, could hardly walk, let alone run.

“I started walking because I was a heavy smoker,” said Grady, secretary of the running club. “God. I could barely walk.”

Following the death of her mother from asthma-related complications in the mid-1990s, Grady was determined to get fit and began strolling a 3-mile circuit a couple of times a week with her sister.

“I got scared because of that,” she said of her mother’s death.

Walking eventually gave way to running, and in 2001, Grady ran her first 5K and quit smoking. Now, she is a dedicated runner.

Like Grady, Lambert battled his own health problems — including sleep apnea and diabetes — before he took up cycling and started Cherokee Riders Cycling Club. Formerly 300 pounds, a now 205-pound Lambert has made strides to improve his overall health.

“There is no magic pill,” he said. “Take responsibility for your own health and actions.”

Lambert tried road cycling in college but did not keep it up. In the mid-90s, he tried again with mountain biking, but his carpel tunnel caused his hands to numb.

However, last year when Lambert heard about a Trail of Tears bike ride, things changed.

“I just had to do it,” he said.

Remember the Removal is an annual three-week bicycle ride commemorating the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from its homelands during the 1830s - a brutal march where thousands of Cherokee perished from starvation and exposure. Riders retrace the route of the Trail of Tears through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and finally to Oklahoma. The ride is exclusive, only seven or eight ECBI members can participate each year. The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma also sends 10 cyclists to complete the ride.

Desiring to be one of those, Lambert bought a bike and began self-training last spring. He figured that if he could ride 6.5 miles from Cherokee to Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which climbs more than 3,000 feet in elevation, then he would be able to make the 950-mile trek to Oklahoma.

“It took me 3.5 hours to not make it half way,” said Lambert, who was impeded by some late winter snow.

But, two weeks later, he completed a similar length ride in Sylva and improved from there.

 

Club genesis

For years, Grady ran only with fellow enthusiasts from her family, but she continued to see other familiar faces along her running routes.

“I always saw the same people out on the trail,” Grady said.

When winter came, Grady moved inside to a local fitness center, and those familiar faces followed.

“And again, we are seeing all these people who have the same enjoyment,” she said.

However, it was not until spring 2009 when Grady and some of her family members went on vacation to Myrtle Beach that the idea of a running club initially arose. To gauge people’s interest, Grady sent out a Facebook message to her friends, many of whom also ran, advertising a meet-up and the possible formation of a running club.

“Oddly enough, here they came,” Grady said. “It’s just awesome.”

Cherokee Runners has grown from 15 to 40 members since its first meeting. And, as an official club, members have crossed the finish line in three marathons and countless half-marathons, 5Ks and 10Ks.

Members of the club meet regularly throughout the week with a longer run scheduled for Sundays. After a jaunt, the runners eat oranges and socialize while cooling down, Grady said.

“It’s not about competition so much as it is about health and fitness, and social (experiences),” she said, adding that anyone can join.

Taking a cue from the Cherokee Runners, Lambert decided to gather other cycling lovers and form the mountain and road biking club — Cherokee Riders.

“Mostly, we liked to ride, and we wanted to get other people involved,” he said.

Although it is not yet an official club, Cherokee Riders already has 10 members. It hopes to gain official club status, which includes crafting bylaws and membership applications, by the end of the month.

A main focus of the club is to raise money for Remember the Removal participants and help train them. The ride costs about $5,000 per person, as each is custom fitted with a bike.

This year, 22 people applied to be one of the seven who gets to represent the Eastern Band on the three-week ride.

During the ride, members of the national nonprofit Trail of Tears Association meet with the riders to give talks and programs during their overnight stops. Participants are “exposed to culturally significant places” along the way, he said. “Everybody who’s gone on the ride said it changed their life.”

 

Civically minded

As part of its mission statement, the Cherokee Runners participate in health fairs, training programs and hosts lectures. Speakers give a rundown of what to wear when exercising during the bone-chilling winter months and the sizzling summer months, how to deal with injuries, and training techniques. All of these outside activities are aimed at promoting exercise and fitness to residents of Cherokee.

“We try to be in the community, visible,” Grady said.

The club also sponsors runs and plans to hold a summer running camp for community members.

In the future, Grady and Lambert said they hope both clubs can work together toward their common goal — to get people to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“They (the running club) are kind of a role model for community involvement,” Lambert said.

Once it’s more established, Cherokee Riders plans to offer bike safety courses, kids camps, training and, if the funds become available, a bike rental program.

 

Kick up your heels

The Cherokee Runners meets at 7 p.m. the first and 15th of every month in the Age Link building, behind the Yellowhill Community Club. However, if the meeting date falls on a church day, it is pushed back to the following day. Members also gather for runs throughout the week and go for a longer run every Sunday. To join in the weekly runs or for more information about the club, contact Gerri Grady at 828.497.7083 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Get peddling

A new cycling club is forming in Cherokee. The Cherokee Riders will hold an organizational and interest meeting at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Emergency Operations Center in Cherokee, followed by a group ride. The club will hold weekly group rides. For more information about the club or their rides, contact Hugh Lambert at 828.554.6810 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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