Meet Native America: Michell Hicks, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
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 people today.
Both Principal Chief Hicks and Principal Chief Bill John Baker of the Cherokee Nation 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. The festival will be webcast live from 11 a.m. to about 3 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
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?
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.
Chief Hicks presenting copies of the children's book True Blue to students at Cherokee Elementary School, Cherokee, North Carolina, December 4, 2006. Written and illustrated by Eastern Band members Annette Suanooke Clapsaddle and Paula Nelson, the story idea began with Sammi Suanooke, a kindergarten teacher at the school, who wanted her students to learn the rewards of patience and listening to elders. The book is part of a series of children's titles published by the chief's office to promote Cherokee values and encourage families to read to their children at home.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation?
My background is finance. I earned my CPA in 1994 and worked in accounting from 1987 until I was elected chief in 2003. Most notably I served as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' executive director of budget and finance for approximately seven years. I feel my experiences were the best preparation for the challenges facing our tribe today.
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 first decades of the 19th century, 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.
Approximately how many citizens are in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians?
There are approximately 15,000 tribal members.
What are the criteria to become a member of your nation?
Enrollment is for those who are direct descendants of Cherokees listed on the 1924 Baker Roll and who are of at least one-sixteenth degree of Eastern Cherokee blood quantum.
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.
What economic enterprises does your nation own?
The Eastern Band of Cherokees owns and operates Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and will soon open the Harrah’s Valley River Casino & Hotel. We have several other enterprises including the Cherokee Boys Club, which provides administrative services for the Cherokee Central School system; Cherokee Bottled Water; and Cherokee Wildlife and Fisheries, which operates one of the largest commercial fish hatcheries in the eastern United States.
What annual events does your community sponsor?
I asked the Eastern Band tourism staff to help answer this, to do justice to all the special events we host:
Events, festivals, fairs, and more abound in Cherokee throughout the spring, summer, and fall, all as diverse as they are delightful. They’re a great way to have a great time, and often they provide an easy opportunity to absorb some intriguing Cherokee culture through dance, food, craftmaking, and more. But some Cherokee events are simply a fun way to spend time with your friends and family.
The Cherokee Voices Festival is all things Cherokee—living history, traditional dances, music, singing, crafting demonstrations, and food. Hosted on the grounds of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, featuring North Carolina Arts Council Heritage Award–winners and elders who typically aren’t able to perform at festivals, yet do so here.
Traditional, Jingle, or Grass are only three of the categories world-champion Indian dancers will perform during the 39th Annual 4th of July Powwow. For three days it's a stirring spectacle of majestic tribal regalia, drum, and song, in a sea of twirling color.
The Memorial Day Youth Powwow is a gathering of tribes, all focused on passing on what’s important to their youngest members—their sacred rituals and customs, their regalia and dance, and of course, their music.
The Open Air Indian Market presents Fine Cherokee art, made right before visitors' eyes by master artisans using age-old techniques.
Cherokee Indian Fair is over a century old. It’s a carnival and an agriculture show, an art show and a game show.
It’s always a good time for a few stories by the bonfire, which is why we have Cherokee Bonfire all season long. Cherokee storytellers in their best 17th-century attire recount myths, legends, and history inherent to Cherokee culture. There’s dancing, too, and of course, marshmallows.
Another event people can enjoy throughout the season, Music by the River presents music in the fresh mountain air, for free.
7 Clans Rodeo—a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association–sanctioned event—is time to see cowboys pay for hundreds of years of beef jerky. There’ll be bull ridin’, bronco bustin’, and a corral full of skills competitions. Visitors might even see a cowboy get hurled into the —you know, fun for the whole family.
The Qualla Boundary has long been home to a host of barbecue lovers, purveyors, and enthusiasts. So the Eastern Band created the Cherokee Barbecue Festival to share our passion and skill. If you love all meats grilled, pulled, and smoked, join us.
People can find dates and further details on these and other special events at VisitCherokeeNC.com.
What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is the oldest tribal museum in the United States and operates year round. The Cherokee Historical Association operates the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a re-creation of a 17th-century Cherokee Village, and the summer production of Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama. The Qualla Arts and Crafts Cooperative is the oldest Native artist cooperative in the United States and operates a retail store.
How does the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
We have worked extremely hard to build and maintain good relationships at the state and federal level and further have spent endless hours educating lawmakers about Eastern Band priorities.
What message would you like to share with Eastern Band young people?
Dreams can be achieved through commitment and a good work ethic.
Photographs courtesy of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Used with permission.
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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.