Chad Smith discusses third term as tribe's principal chief

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by Justin Juozapavicius

CATOOSA, Okla. (AP) - As principal chief of 270,000 Cherokees, Chad Smith presides over an economic powerhouse, administers a $350 million budget and fights perceived threats to his people, including anti-Indian slurs he sees in popular culture.

But he has also become a lightning rod for criticism - unfairly so, he contends - over a tribal vote affecting 2,800 descendants of black people the Cherokees once owned as slaves.

Smith, 56, who holds a law degree from the University of Tulsa and once taught at Dartmouth College, easily won re-election on June 23 as principal chief.

His third term picks up where the second left off: deflecting charges of racism and calls by a congresswoman to sever U.S. relations with the Tahlequah-based tribe. For his part, Smith says his focus remains on creating meaningful jobs and boosting tribal self-reliance.

``Adversity creates opportunity,'' Smith said in an office complex overlooking the expansive Cherokee casino and resort. ``The press has long had stereotypes about the Cherokees and they are creating another stereotype, so what it does is give us an opportunity to actually lay the richness of our history out, and the quality of our people.''

Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., introduced legislation on June 21 to cut millions of dollars in federal funding to the Cherokee Nation over a March 3 election in which the tribe limited Cherokee citizenship to descendants of ``by blood'' tribal members.

Results of the election are on hold pending a legal challenge, but if allowed to stand, 2,800 descendants of the tribe's former black slaves, also called freedmen, would be removed from the tribe. They would lose tribal benefits, including medical coverage.

Watson and other critics say a treaty the tribe signed with the U.S. government in 1866 states that the freedmen are citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

``It particularly pains me, over 40 years after the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act, that legislation has to be introduced to compel the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma to recognize the basic civil rights of the Cherokee freedmen,'' Watson said after she filed the legislation.

Smith says the election had nothing to do with race and everything to do with common heritage.

``What the Cherokee Nation is doing today is what every other tribe in the country is doing: defining themselves by common ancestry,'' Smith says. ``Our citizenship statutes and laws are very open: all that's required is one ancestor of some Cherokee blood.''

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has notified the Cherokee Nation it has no intention of cutting off federal funding to the tribe.

And Smith has no intention of allowing the freedmen issue to define him.

His case for re-election included the creation of thousands of jobs, with 1,500 more on the way in the next 18 months; a more than twofold increase in spending for health care; 400 miles of roads built, and a car tag program that earmarked $10 million for schools.

He sums up the philosophy for his tribe in Cherokee: ga-du-gi, or coming together to work for the greater good of the community.

``At the end of the day, I like to see accomplishment,'' Smith says. ``For me, as principal chief, we get to build families, community, we get to rebuild an entire nation, and that's just the greatest opportunity and challenge.''

Smith describes himself as deliberate, but passionate, the latter trait perhaps coming as a surprise to people who view him as perpetually straight-laced.

``Things will happen in the tribe that makes your eyes well up with emotion,'' he says. ``When our little kids are singing in Cherokee, it just makes you feel inspired, when you see our old folks in churches with their grandkids hanging off of them, that's inspiring.

``It becomes emotional because you can actually see us getting closer to that great vision of becoming a happier and healthier people,'' he says.

Smith also wants his people to see him as accessible.

Last year, he helped dig several water line ditches and worked on five homes. An ironworker throughout high school and college, he helped install the framework for two clinics and a couple gaming operations.

He mows his own lawn, does the family's laundry every Sunday and calls nation employees the morning of their birthday.

When he needs to blow off steam, he tinkers under the hood of a Studebaker.

He says he's never had a bad day while in office.

``Of course, some have been better than others,'' he says. ``The older you get, I hate to say that, but it makes a lot more sense.''

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On the Net:

Cherokee Nation: www.cherokee.org
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