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Cherokee's Smith looks to the past to find nation's future

OKLAHOMA CITY - Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, may be newly elected, but he comes from a long line of leaders.

Smith, elected last October, isn't just looking at what he can do during his four-year term, he is looking ahead 100 years and striving to make that century even better for the Cherokee people.

"We think in terms of long-term goals, one-hundred-year goals," Smith said. He said he believes the future of the Cherokee Nation is tied to its history.

"We look to where we were one hundred years ago, and it wasn't that bad. A hundred years ago we had a rich tribal identity, we had a strong tribal government and we were economically self-reliant. We want to strive for those things over the next one hundred years. Right now we are 96 percent dependent on federal funds, we're not economically self-reliant."

Smith holds a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Georgia, a master's degree in public administration from the University of Wisconsin and a juris doctorate (law) from the University of Tulsa. Before being elected principal chief, Smith was a professor of Indian law at Dartmouth College, Northeastern State University and Rogers State University. He also had a private practice and owned his own law firm based out of Tulsa.

Smith's dedication to the Cherokee Nation comes from his ancestry.

"A legacy is an obligation," he said. "When somebody hands you something from your ancestors, which is so valuable and precious, it is incumbent on you to pass it on to your children and grandchildren. A legacy is also an honor. You are given such a great legacy it is a great honor to carry that on and give it your full faith and effort. So to me it is also a reward, it is a simple reward of accepting and carrying on a legacy."

His grandfather Redbird Smith was considered a Cherokee patriot. "My great-grandfather was arrested in the early 1900s for refusing to take his allotment," Smith said. "He was a senator of the Cherokee Nation. He re-established the traditional religion. My grandmother during the '40s and '50s of the century went from home to home to collect nickels and dimes to send lawyers to Washington to help us revive our tribe.

"My father protected and defended us. Every tribe has a legacy, our tribe's is we're people who face adversity, survive, adapt, prosper and excel."

Smith recalled a chapter of the Cherokee's history. "As Senator Dawes commented in 1881, he came to the Cherokee Nation for an examination. He said there was not a pauper in the whole Cherokee Nation and that every family owned his own home. The Cherokee owed not a dollar. He further went on to say that fault of the system was apparent," Smith continued.

"We agreed to give up our lands and for them to be allotted. Several would make no more progress. Since that time our economics and our social economic status has declined and now we are one of the poorest groups in Oklahoma."

As he works to bring the Cherokee Nation back to its former status, Smith said he believes striving for economic self-reliance is one of the biggest challenges facing the tribe.

"One of our initiatives is cultural education, probably our most dramatic and urgent one. We want to begin teaching in a very penetrating, sophisticated manner, our language, culture, history, traditions and art. The second initiative is to re-engineer our management system so it becomes efficient, effective and culturally compatible.

"We've been in it about six months now. It's a very mammoth project, very sophisticated project." Smith said. Facilitators from Harvard and Stanford as well as other places have been brought in to help re-map and re-engineer and strengthen the Cherokee government.

Smith's knowledge of Cherokee history gives him a strong sense of where his tribe has been and is also giving him direction for the 21st century.

He sees good relationships between tribal governments and the state of Oklahoma, but cautioned, "You don't have overt racism, but there still is the same amount of paternalism and patronage. Some of the evidence of that is when you go to our schools and public places that they still have Indians as mascots. They still think it is some kind of honoring to us or value, but its not.

"But in the last ten years, the general public in the state have realized that they have benefited by our presence, our attributes, the characteristics of our sovereignty. We've contributed a lot to this state. They have something valuable other than the novelty and the tourism.

"So I think we are beginning to evolve a much stronger partnership, where each partner is equal and each partner is respected, but we still have some distance to go."