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Principal Chief Michell Hicks: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Principal Chief Michell Hicks.

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Both Principal Chief Bill John Baker and Principal Chief Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are profiled in Meet Native America this week. The two nations join us in hosting Cherokee Days—a free festival of storytelling, films, dance, music, family activities, and cultural demonstrations at the museum in Washington, D.C., Thursday, April 3, through Saturday, April 5, 2014. Visit the museum's online calendar for the full schedule of festival events.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?

I possess no Native name or nickname, but the Cherokee word for chief is u-gu-wi-u-hi.

Where is the Eastern Band located? Where was your nation originally from?

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians lives in western North Carolina in the Great Smoky Mountains. Our lands today were the heart of the Cherokee Nation at the time of European contact. At that time our tribe controlled parts of what are now eight states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

The story of the Eastern Band is one of survival. We avoided the Removal of our people in the 1830s and survived the destruction of the old Cherokee Nation.

How is the Eastern Band government set up?

Our government functions under a governing charter. However we formed in the later part of the 19th century under the Lloyd Welch Constitution. We have an executive branch, led by the principal chief and vice chief, which oversees the nation's day-to-day operations; a Tribal Council of elected officials from six voting districts, which develops legislation; and a Tribal Court system with civil and criminal courts as well as a Supreme Court.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

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The Eastern Band has many forms of traditional leadership. We have a thriving Ga-du-gi group of men and women who come together to support families during times of hardship. This includes digging graves and cooking for funerals, scraping snowy driveways, and providing wood to elderly community members.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

The principal chief and vice chief are elected every four years. The Tribal Council is elected every two years. All office-holders may serve for an unlimited number of popularly elected terms.

How often does the council meet?

Our Tribal Council meets in official session twice a month, once to resolve budget issues and once to undertake other business. Additionally, there are several Tribal Council committees that meet monthly to work on business and prepare for the regular Tribal Council sessions.

What responsibilities do you have as principal chief?

I have a responsibility to keep our community safe, to provide access to quality health care, to provide educational opportunities, and to promote a lifestyle that celebrates our heritage and preserves our language.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

There are several individuals who have inspired me by their service to the Eastern Band community. These include former Eastern Band Principal Chief Joyce Dugan, former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller, and Ray Kinsland.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?

My family traces our lineage through my grandfather back to Charles Hicks (1767–1827), a tribal chief who lived in eastern Tennessee. In the early 1800s, Charles was very influential in easing tensions between the Cherokee Nation and their early non-Indian neighbors. My colleagues Bob Blankenship, councilmember for Yellowhill Township, and Nancy Maney, Eastern Band enrollment officer, recently shared research that traces my grandmother's family back to Chief Yonaguska (or Yonaguskia, 1760?–1839), who promoted both temperance and peace, and who remained in the North Carolina mountains during the Removal and helped rebuild the Eastern Band.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

The Kituwah dialect is still spoken among our people, although there are fewer than 400 fluent speakers. Our tribe has invested in the New Kituwah Academy, a Cherokee language–based school, in an effort to preserve and further our language. We currently have approximately 60 students enrolled in this school.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.