TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - Citizens of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma went to the polls June 23 and reaffirmed their confidence in the leadership of Principal Chief Chad ''Corntassel'' Smith and Deputy Chief Joe Grayson Jr.
Smith was re-elected with 59 percent of the vote for a third four-year term as principal chief, beating out his opponent, former Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Justice Stacy Leeds. Grayson was approved for a second term with 61 percent of the vote, over Raymond Vann, a retired General Motors foreman.
During pre-election debates, Leeds challenged the current leadership's distribution of gaming revenues, claiming more money should be designated for health care services. Smith disagreed, arguing that at the present time, developing tribal business and employment opportunities was most critical.
Currently, 30 percent of Cherokee gaming revenues are allocated for tribal services and 70 percent for business development.
Smith said that solidifying existing Cherokee business ventures and expanding new ones has been the strategy of his administration that has worked best for the tribe in achieving its current level of success. He contended the nation must continue to build on that success.
''When I [first] got into office, we didn't have two nickels to rub together,'' he said. ''Cherokees have a long history of surviving abject poverty. The question now is, can we survive prosperity?''
The tribe currently employs some 6,500 people, and many new jobs have been created under Smith's leadership through expansion of the tribe's casino operations, which feature seven casinos in northeastern Oklahoma.
During the debates, Grayson indicated that there has been an approximate 50 percent increase in tribal employment over the past three years, but he supports Smith's assertion that maintaining these advancements are critical.
''We're competing in the private sector now, so we need people that have experience in the private sector to run the businesses and keep them going.''
Smith and Grayson both emphasized the continued need to focus on improving diplomatic relations with state and federal entities. Grayson said the struggle to assert and solidify sovereignty is essential.
''The state doesn't realize that we are the largest employer in northeastern Oklahoma and every two weeks we pump into the economy of northeastern Oklahoma about $3.5 million in salaries - money funneled back into Oklahoma by the Cherokee Nation.''
Smith also cited long-term strategies to improve tribal leadership as another important challenge for the nation. He said consensus is the key to achieving goals the tribe has set.
''We need leaders that will pull together,'' he pointed out. He said statesmanship and leadership focused on the best interests of the whole tribe leads to greater success.
He placed special prominence on ideas for developing culturally based leadership qualities and skills among the nation's youth.
''What greater honor can you ever be engaged in than passing on [our] great Cherokee legacy with discipline, compassion and the idea that we're doing it for something bigger than ourselves?'' he asked.
Prior to his service as principal chief, Smith taught Indian law at Dartmouth College, Northeastern State University and Rogers State University. He has written college curricula in tribal operations and authored a 600-page course book on Cherokee legal history. He 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 from the University of Tulsa, according to the Cherokee Nation Web site.
He also served with two previous administrations as director of tribal planning, legal historian, attorney, tribal prosecutor, director of justice and adviser to the tribal tax commission. Smith has also worked as a prosecutor in Creek County and a public defender in Tulsa County, and operated his own private law practice.
Grayson is a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, having served in the U.S. Army, 4th Infantry Division. He is a member of the Masonic Lodge and the American Legion. His professional life has been spent as a plumbing contractor and employee of W.W. Hastings Hospital in Tahlequah, according to Chad Smith's Web site.
Grayson has co-chaired the Cherokee National Holiday Committee, the Tahlequah Public Schools Indian Parent Committee and served as chairman of the Cherokee United Way. In 2005, he was elected National Congress of American Indians Vice President for Eastern Oklahoma.
Fifteen tribal council members were also confirmed in the election. They include Bill John Baker, Cherokee District 1; S. Joe Crittenden, Trail of Tears District 2; David W. Thornton and Janelle Lattimore Fullbright, Sequoyah District 3; Don Garvin, Three Rivers District 4; Harley L. Buzzard and Curtis G. Snell, Delaware District 5; Chris Soap and Meredith Frailey, Mayes District 6; Cara Cowan Watts, Will Rogers District 7; Buel Anglen and Bradley Cobb, Oolagah District 8; Charles ''Chuck'' Hoskin Jr., Craig District 9; and Julia Coates and Jack D. Baker, councilors at large.
A run-off election is scheduled for July 28, to decide the winners of two undecided seats between incumbent Audra Smoke-Connor and Tina Glory Jordan in District 1, and incumbent Jackie Bob Martin or Jody Fishinghawk in District 2.
In addition, the election also yielded a vote to affirm the removal of mandatory federal approval for amendments to the Cherokee Nation Constitution, with 67 percent carrying the question.