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. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
My name is Cara Cowan Watts. I am an elected member of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council.
Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or nickname?
ᎨᏩ (Gewa) is the Cherokee approximation of Cara.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
The Tribal Council per the Cherokee Nation Constitution has the power to establish laws which it shall deem necessary and proper for the good of the nation, and conducts other business which will further the interests of the Cherokee Nation and its citizenship. Basically, the council has the power of the purse strings with approval of the budget and any monthly budget modifications as well as the passage of laws (Acts and Resolutions).
In addition to the formal roles defined by the Constitution of the Cherokee Nation, I am in the community every day meeting constituents, attending meetings, developing relationships with city, county, state, and federal government officials and entities. Without staff to assist, I answer several hundred emails, Facebook messages, snail mail letters, phone calls, and Tweets each day. Each councilperson serves approximately 7,500 people without staff assistance in our 17-person Legislative Branch.
To learn more about me, I invite you to visit my website. I am active on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Pinterest. I use social media to share what I do on a day-to-day basis as a tribal councilwoman.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation?
My Cherokee mother and maternal grandparents ensured I knew who I was as a Cherokee citizen since my earliest memories. My family instilled in me a sense of responsibility to participate in my government by being informed and voting. I have voted in every tribal election since I turned 18 years old, even when I was living outside of the Cherokee Nation. My greatest tie to the Cherokee Nation is my Clan, passed down through my Cherokee mother, Beverly Cowan.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Wilma Mankiller was significant to me. She broke down any remaining barriers for Cherokee women in our modern leadership. Chief Mankiller assisted me in my early campaigns by endorsing me, advising me, and attending many of my campaign events. I am thankful for the time I was able to spend with her and the candid advice she gave me at critical times in my tenure on the Tribal Council.
Wilma assisted me with my public life of service to the tribe, but my Cherokee mother, Beverly Cowan, and my extra Cherokee mother, the late Marti Aleshire, gave me the day-to-day advice I needed as a young woman and professional.
I have always been attracted to strong Indian women and especially strong Cherokee women (and men) who continue to help raise me, so to speak, and make sure I am on a path which serves the entire Cherokee Nation and not just a few. I have a number of mentors throughout Indian Country who have made me a stronger person and a stronger tribal leader.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so who?
I am an eighth-generation resident of Rogers County, Oklahoma—or what is now known as Rogers County, Oklahoma. I am a direct descendant of Old Settler Cherokee Chief John Rogers, who lived in the Cooweescoowee District of the Cherokee Nation, which included what is now Rogers County prior to Oklahoma statehood. Rogers was the nephew of former Cherokee Nation Chief Tahlonteeskee and Chief John Jolly, who served the nation prior to removal on the Trail of Tears. Chief John Rogers is buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
I am a direct descendent of Tiawah, Indian Territory, resident Dempsey Fields Coker, councilor and solicitor for the Cooweescoowee District in the late 1870s. One of my ancestors is Scottish trader Ludovick Grant, who married into the Cherokee Nation and makes me part of the Scottish Clan Grant. My great-great-grandfather was Danish and helped keep the Oaks Indian Mission open by writing to the Danish Lutheran Church and asking them to take control when the Moravians had to abandon the mission. The Oaks Mission is still a critical organization within the Cherokee Nation today.
Where is your nation located?
The Cherokee Nation is located in all or part of 14 counties in northeastern Oklahoma, and our tribal jurisdiction (which is not a reservation) is approximately 7,000 square miles. I live in Rogers County. The tribe’s capital is Tahlequah, Oklahoma, which is in Cherokee County and more than one hour from Rogers County. All of Cherokee, Sequoyah, Adair, Nowata, Craig, and Mayes counties are within the Cherokee Nation, and a portion of Delaware, Rogers, Ottawa, McIntosh, Muskogee, Tulsa, Wagoner and Washington counties are within the Cherokee Nation.
Where was your nation originally from?
Cherokee lands included parts of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Today, only three Cherokee governments remain: the Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.
Does the Cherokee Nation have a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Cherokees still have traditional ceremonial grounds with traditional chiefs and other leadership separate from the public tribal government.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
The Trail of Tears, followed closely by the U.S. Civil War, almost destroyed our tribe through epidemic diseases, internal and external war, massive land loss, forced removal, allotment (the Dawes Act), and the breakup of Cherokee families. It is amazing we are still here and a testament to the resiliency of the Cherokee Nation.
Approximately how many citizens are in your tribe?
As of the 2012 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR, pages 109–110), we have approximately 318,000 tribal citizens registered with the Tribal Registrar.
What are the criteria to become a citizen?
To be eligible for Cherokee Nation citizenship, individuals must provide documents connecting them to an enrolled direct ancestor who is listed on the Dawes Roll with a blood degree. CDIB [Certificate of Decree of Indian Blood]/tribal citizenship is traced through natural parents. In cases of adoption, CDIB/citizenship must be proven through a biological parent to an ancestor registered on the Dawes Roll.
The Tribal Registrar maintains a Cherokee Nation citizenship webpage to provide information and services.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Out of more than 318,000 Cherokee Nation citizens worldwide, a survey by the tribal government about ten years ago indicated we have 3,000 to 5,000 fluent Cherokee speakers remaining and many who are conversational in Cherokee. But even fewer are literate in the written Cherokee syllabary.
What economic enterprises does your nation own?
Cherokee Nation Businesses, L.L.C. (CNB), is the economic engine of the Cherokee Nation and creates jobs for tribal citizens and revenue for the tribal government to expand and create new programs beyond those supported with federal dollars. CNB owns more than 27 companies in the gaming, hospitality, personnel services, distribution, manufacturing, telecommunications, and environmental services industries. These tribal businesses have revenues of nearly $750 million every year and earn nearly $100 million in profits.
CNB by tribal law keeps 65 percent of the profits for job development and creation. The remaining 35 percent of profits goes to the tribal government as a dividend: Five percent is set aside by tribal law to cover contract health service needs not funded by the federal government through Indian Health Service (IHS) funds; the remaining 30 percent is budgeted in the annual budget process and each month when the tribal budget is modified by the Executive & Finance Committee and then passed to the chief for signature after the meeting of the full council.
CNB is supposed to be at arm's length from the government and elected officials, with a Board of Directors who are typically Cherokee Nation citizens nominated by the chief and approved by the Tribal Council. The board oversees the CEO of CNB. The chief and Tribal Council are representative shareholders of CNB on behalf of the Cherokee people’s government.
What annual events does your nation sponsor?
The Cherokee National Holiday was begun in 1953 to commemorate the anniversary of the signing of the 1839 Cherokee Constitution. Each year, the tribe hosts more than 90,000 visitors from across the world with entertainment, cultural, and athletic events over Labor Day Weekend.
Some of my favorite activities at Cherokee National Holiday are the chief’s State of the Nation address and the Cherokee fiddlers’ contest.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
The Cherokee Nation has approximately 70,000 acres of history and culture since the Old Settler Cherokees and Cherokees on the Trail of Tears formed a single Cherokee Nation government in Oklahoma. Historical sites spread throughout the tribe include the Cherokee Heritage Center & Museum, Diligwa (Ancient Village), Cherokee Courthouse, Cherokee National Prison, Cherokee Capitol Building, Will Rogers Memorial Museum & Birthplace Ranch, Murrell home, and Sequoyah’s cabin. Every art gallery and gift shop supports our Cherokee artisans, including the Cherokee Art Market, Cherokee Arts Center, and Cherokee Gift Shop.
How is your national government set up?
The Cherokee Nation is a constitutional tripartite government. The three separate but equal branches of government are the Executive Branch (principal chief and deputy chief), Unicameral Legislative Branch (17 councilmembers), and Judicial Branch (District Court and five Supreme Court justices. The Cherokee Nation Constitution was written at a Constitutional Convention consisting of Cherokee citizens and voted upon by Cherokee citizens.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Elected leaders in both the Executive and Legislative Branch serve four-year terms. A new constitution was adopted in 2003, so now the Legislative Branch has staggered terms with about half the council being elected every two years. Our next tribal election will be in June 2015 and will include the positions of chief and deputy chief, as well as eight Council seats.
The Cherokee Nation has an independent Election Commission with two members appointed by the Tribal Council and two members appointed by the chief. The four members appoint a fifth member for a total of five tribal election commissioners. All five must be publicly approved by the Tribal Council and the chief through the committee and full council process.
Cherokee Nation citizens are required to register to vote and maintain their current address with the Cherokee Nation Election Commission to be eligible to vote in tribal elections. Voter registration is possible regardless of where a Cherokee Nation citizen lives, and everyone is able to vote by mail through the absentee ballot process.
How often does the tribal council meet?
The Cherokee Nation Tribal Council meets once a month in full council, at 6 PM on the Monday following the second Saturday of each month. The council has six standing committees with every councilmember required by law to be a member of two. Each committee typically meets for two days once a month in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
All meetings include ten-day notice to the public, including special meetings. Agendas must be posted ten days prior and Roberts Rules of Orders are followed in general for the conduct of meetings. All meetings are streamed live and archived online.
To follow the meetings; track legislation, amendments, and motions; read monthly reports by department and more, citizens are encouraged to go to the Cherokee Nation Legislative Branch website.
How does your tribe deal with the U.S. as a sovereign nation?
The Cherokee Nation is a federally recognized treaty tribe that constantly consults with the federal government to better implement federal programs for our unique citizenry and needs as a tribal community.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
Youth should become engaged in their community and day-to-day tribal government operations. Read your tribal constitution, attend a council meeting, meet your elected representatives, and follow their monthly actions. Ask questions. Lead community discussions on issues facing your tribe on a regular basis and seek the truth or facts on all sides of issues important to you and your community. Register to vote and exercise your duty to vote. Use social media to make your tribal government more transparent and demand that facts are shared rather than rumor.
I have had the honor and privilege of serving with some incredible tribal councilmembers who are true patriots of the Cherokee Nation, such as Jackie Bob Martin, William "Bill" Johnson, Buel Anglen, Lee Keener, Meredith Frailey, Dr. Brad Cobb, Harley Buzzard, Jack D. Baker, Don Garvin, and Dr. Julia Coates. I want to thank them for their teamwork, leadership, and passion for the Cherokee People.
Without my family and especially my husband, Doug Watts, I could not be of service to the Cherokee people. Every day I serve as an elected official, my family sacrifices time with me and often provides logistical support for my job as a councilwoman.
Doug is a citizen of the Wyandotte Nation, so he and his family understand the importance of tribal citizenship and the impact our tribal governments make on our families’ daily lives.
I hope you take time to learn more about the Cherokee Nation at www.cherokee.org.
Other interviews in this series:
Ben Shelley, president of the Navajo Nation
Councilman Jonathan Perry, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)
John Sirois, Chairman, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation
Thurman Cournoyer Sr., Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman
Jimmy R. Newton, Jr., Chairman, Southern Ute Indian Tribe
Scott N. BigHorse, Assistant Principal Chief, Osage Nation
Clifford M. LaChappa, chairman of the Barona Band of Mission Indians.
Series banner, from left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission.