New Tribal Council chair is first woman to hold position
Terri Henry has been elected as the first female Tribal Council chair of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, some six years after the U.S. House of Representatives elected its first female speaker.
“I think that every government has its time,” said Henry, a representative from Painttown.
Henry was born in Yellowhill and even spent time in Wolfetown, but she has lived most of her life in Painttown. She was valedictorian of her class at Cherokee High School and attended the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She later received a law degree from the University of Iowa.
Growing up, Henry always heard her family members talking politics but didn’t develop an interest in it early. Even during her first year of college, Henry wasn’t completely set on what she would do.
One night when feeling homesick in her freshman dorm room, Henry said she started thinking about what it means to be Cherokee and specifically about the Trail of Tears. She decided that she wanted to somehow focus on protecting her people and their heritage.
“Whatever I would do, it would be so that that act would not happen again to native people,” Henry said.
“What became clear to me is if tribal governments could not protect the one thing we hold most dear — our people — why protect anything?” she added.
After some time away from the reservation, working for the U.S. Census Department and the Indian Law Resource Center in Washington, D.C., Henry returned to Cherokee to do just that. In 1999, she founded found the Qualla Women’s Justice Alliance and, two years later, founded Clan Star. Both are domestic violence advocacy groups. She is also a founding and current member of the National Congress of American Indians Task Force on Violence Against Native Women in Washington, D.C.
Henry ran against Tunney Crowe for chairperson; she won 55 percent to 45 percent. It is her second time running for the seat — a calculated move. Henry isn’t contemplating the possibility of making a run for chief just yet, saying she was solely focused on doing well as chairwoman.
“What I am really concerned about is living up to the expectations the tribe has for me,” she said. “I want to be an example for young girls.”
But Henry did state that she has positioned herself purposely as one of the top tribal leaders.
“I had been establishing my leadership, and that was a conscious thing I was doing,” Henry said.
Two of Henry’s vocal supporters were fellow female council members Teresa McCoy and Tommye Saunooke.
“It is an honor for me to serve in council with a chairperson who is a strong tribal leader, regardless of whether she is a woman,” McCoy said.
The leadership within the tribe has remained the same for the past decade, she said, and it was time for something new.
“She has the education and the professionalism that the tribe needed,” McCoy said. “I felt like it was way past time for our tribe to be headed in a new direction, and I for one and happy and thrilled.”
Saunooke called Henry’s election as council chair a historic moment and noted that women have long played an important role in the tribe.
“Women have always been leaders in our Cherokee history. They have always been revered,” Saunooke said. “I think she will do a great job. She is well qualified.”
During her two-year term as chairwoman, Henry said she wants to “establish some financial accountability,” draft and pass a constitution and review the roles and necessity of different committees.
Under the old Tribal Council leadership, Henry said she believes that the tribe spent money too quickly, not giving careful consideration to each project. One multi-million project she does not support is the Cherokee County casino; however, its creation is now inevitable.
“I am not going to go down there and lay in front of the bulldozers,” Henry said.
But tribal leaders can still keep the project under close watch. Henry said she met with contractor candidates and stressed the importance of staying on budget.
“We made it very clear to them that we will not entertain cost overruns,” Henry said. “We made it clear to them that we were not a cash cow.”
Not only will Tribal Council carefully review its expenses, Henry has asked members of council who serve on different committees to evaluate the role each committee has. Is the committee still relevant today? How can it be repurposed to fit the current needs of the tribe?
The Eastern Band will have to answer similarly broad questions if it starts to write its first constitution, as Henry hopes.
Two years ago, Tribal Council supported the creation of constitutional task force, which was supposed to meet and craft a constitution. However, it never came to fruition because the Cherokee Preservation Foundation wouldn’t fund the initiative without input, Henry said.
Henry said that former Preservation Foundation President Susan Jenkins “wanted to dictate to us how she wanted us to do this, and we said, ‘no.’”