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Joseph Martin
Special to Indian Country Today

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians government is asking that its local Bureau of Indian Affairs head be removed and a new superintendent be assigned to the Cherokee, North Carolina, agency.

The tribal council passed a resolution this month requesting that BIA Cherokee Agency Superintendent William McKee Jr., a member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, be reassigned to a different agency and different tribe. The vote passed 10-0, with two representatives absent.

Principal Chief Richard Sneed, who submitted the resolution, accused McKee of being inconsistent and unprofessional.

“The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been working diligently to build a productive working relationship with the local Bureau of Indian Affairs representative,” Sneed said in a statement. “Due to unpreventable circumstances, the (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) has found that the current superintendent is not the best fit to represent our tribe. We certainly wish the best for Mr. McKee in his future endeavors and appreciate his years of service.”

Bureau of Indian Affairs Cherokee Agency Superintendent William McKee Jr. (Photo Courtesy of Principal Chief Richard Sneed’s office)

McKee declined to comment for this article, calling the matter an "internal situation.” Several phone calls made to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs were not returned.

The role of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to its mission statement, is to enhance quality of life, promote economic opportunities and protect tribes' trust assets. 

Its agency superintendents are tasked with working directly with tribal governments in support of government-to-government relationships. The bureau's Office of Field Operations oversees 12 regional offices and 83 agencies across the U.S.

Many of the grievances with McKee center around the Eastern Cherokees’ request that the BIA’s headquarters building in Cherokee, near the Tennessee border, be transferred to the tribe.

The chief alleges McKee has neglected matters that would help the tribe move toward self-determination and has shown contempt for tribal employees who occupy the same building. In addition to the BIA employees, the building houses the tribe’s realty services and its attorney general’s office.

According to the resolution, McKee, who has been at the Cherokee Agency since 2016, suggested the tribe request that the building be declared surplus property, which would then be transferred to the tribe. 

The tribal council passed a resolution supporting that request in February. The tribe then submitted the request to McKee, and in May, he declined it, saying the building was essential to the agency’s activities.

Sneed noted the building is old and said 39 physical deficiencies, making working conditions unsafe or unhealthy, were found by the BIA’s Occupational Health and Safety manager in 2018. McKee was given 30 days to either correct the deficiencies or make temporary, adequate corrective measures.

“To date, Superintendent McKee has not remedied those deficiencies, or if he has tried to do so, his efforts are not evident,” Sneed said.

Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (file photo)

Sneed also contends McKee was slow to send the tribe's request for the transfer of another surplus building to the BIA Eastern Regional Office.

McKee didn’t appear before the tribal council to respond to the allegations. Council Representative Tommye Saunooke questioned taking action with McKee absent.

“This is the first time that I’ve ever discussed a resolution without the other person being here,” she said.

Council Chairman Adam Wachacha answered: “We did plenty of resolutions without the people (who were interested parties) here. I just try to make sure that if we’re going to talk about somebody, that they’re at least in the room to rebut or whatever. He sent his rebuttal through email. So we did receive Mr. McKee’s response.”

McKee’s response, however, was not read in open session. Requests for its release through both the tribal council and a federal Freedom of Information Act through the BIA have not yet received a response.

This is not the first time the Eastern Cherokee have asked that a BIA official be removed. In 1987, the tribal council passed a resolution requesting reassignment of Cherokee Agency Facility Manager Ward Grassle. Then-Principal Chief Robert Youngdeer vetoed the resolution, but the council overrode it. According to then-Agency Superintendent Wilbur Paul, Grassle was reassigned.

Another tribe, the White Mountain Apache, took similar action in 2004, when its tribal council requested the removal of Fort Apache Agency Superintendent Ben Nuvamsa, according to the Show Low, Arizona-based White Mountain Independent. He was later transferred to another agency.

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Joseph Martin is a former editor of the Cherokee One Feather in Cherokee, N.C., and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.