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Cherokee chief celebrates 10 years in office

(MCT) – The lawyer leading about 30 people broke through a police line surrounding the Cherokee Nation courthouse in Tahlequah before he was wrestled to the ground and arrested.

“Who owns the courthouse?” he shouted to a gathering crowd.

“The Cherokee people,” the group answered.

“Well, let’s go. Let’s take it back,” he said.

It’s been 12 years since that lawyer, now Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith, led that group across the courthouse lawn. He celebrated Aug. 14, the 10th anniversary of his inauguration as chief.

“It’s the longest I’ve held a steady job,” Smith joked. “I love my job, and I do it because I care for the Cherokee people. I want to see the legacy that has been given to me passed on to the generations that come. What’s been fascinating is it certainly went quickly.”

In the late 1990s, the tribe was in a constitutional crisis culminating in Smith’s arrest and a dust-up between tribal marshals and another tribal security force. The confrontation made national news.

“It’s hard to remember what it was like 10 years ago,” Smith said. “But when we remember back, the foundation was pretty shaky. There were tremendous fundamental problems. But over the last 10 years, we can see some substantial progress. We laid the foundation, we developed a vision, then we recruited some very good employees and leaders. It’s been exponential growth since that time.”

Smith points to accomplishments such as the tribally operated Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa in Catoosa, quality health care, the creation of 5,000 jobs, a tribal choir performance at the White House and state championships won by the high school basketball team. He continues to exercise and promote tribal sovereignty.

“Looking back 10 years, at that moment you would not have thought we could have come as far as we have today,” Smith said. “Having that in mind, where could we be 30 or 40 years from now if we stay focused on our long-term vision?”

The push for preserving the tribe’s language and culture has been a particular high point, he said, recalling an incident at a Sequoyah High School girls’ basketball game.

“Two little girls, like 5 or 6 years old, came up to me just jabbering away in Cherokee,” Smith said. “They were from our immersion school, and this was in our new gym. You couldn’t ask for a moment that captured it best. Great leadership from our student athletes in a building – a $9 million gym – we had just built, and listening to children speak Cherokee.”

Smith has dealt with controversies, including the question of freedmen descendant rights, long-running disputes with the United Keetoowah Band, state negotiations for tobacco compacts and Cherokee Nation landfill rights.

“There’s always internal and external issues,” he said. “It just takes a steady hand on the wheel to take us through when waters are choppy and waters are calm.”

Smith plans to run for re-election in 2011.

Although the Cherokee Nation has a two-term limit for chiefs, he successfully sued the tribe’s election commission this year, arguing that the limit had not gone into effect until after the tribe’s constitution was adopted in 2003.

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