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Cherokee Nation to consider constitutional convention

Felix Clary
ICT + Tulsa World

TULSA, Okla. – Voters will decide June 15 whether to reframe the Cherokee Constitution or not.

All members of the Cherokee Tribal Council, except for one, have encouraged voters to vote no.

“Not a single Cherokee Nation elected or appointed official is advocating for a yes vote,” said Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. in a recent press release.

Hoskin told ICT and Tulsa World that no convention is needed because the constitution has “stood the test of time and carried the Cherokee Nation” through major political shifts from legislation and court decisions, such as the McGirt decision.

“Any problems the tribe could be facing right now – I don’t think they’re constitutional,” Cherokee Councilman Troy Wayne Poteete told ICT and Tulsa World.

In response to comments about controversy over tribal law enforcement after McGirt, Poteete said, “Our constitution is what allows us to facilitate adjustments we might need to make to our law enforcement. Maybe we will need some statutory changes, maybe we will need more resources at some point, but these are things we can do with the constitution we now have.”

The special election is held every two decades to allow voters a chance to call in a constitutional convention if they deem necessary. All Cherokee registered voters can fill out a ballot. There are typically two to three thousand voters for each of the 17 Cherokee districts.

If called to convene, the convention will open up the constitution for it to be examined and potentially rewritten. The next special election falls this year, a year that Poteete says is part of a “second golden age for the Cherokee Nation.”

“We’re making a lot of progress. Our healthcare system has been refined, and our language is being revitalized,” said Poteete.

According to Hoskin, Cherokee citizens do not have to wait 20 years to make constitutional changes. They can also use referendums and petitions any time to create change they wish to see in the constitution.

Hoskin said if there are any isolated issues citizens have with the constitution, one of those two processes would be better than opening up and reworking the whole living document, because not only does he feel it unnecessary at this time, he also doesn’t want anything that has worked for two decades to be lost.

Poteete is executive director of the Trail of Tears Association, a historic group that volunteers to mark and interpret the removal routes from homelands. He said the history of the Cherokee Nation government is itself an argument for keeping the constitution how it is.

A defining document

The last Cherokee Constitutional Convention was in 1999, which Hoskin (one of the delegates at the time) said was a year filled with political turmoil in the Cherokee Nation.

Poteete said constitutional conventions being called every 20 years has been beneficial to the Cherokee people in learning how to grow and adapt to the American political climate.

The state of Georgia was built on and around the Cherokee Nation’s homelands. The state aimed to minimize the tribe’s sovereignty in order to gain jurisdiction over the reservation. In order to maintain autonomy, the Cherokee government adapted its first tri-head government to match that of the federal government: a legislative, executive and judicial branch.

Ultimately, the tribe was given an incentive to move to Oklahoma if it wanted to remain a domestic, dependent nation, which kept minimal autonomy for the nation. When the Trail of Tears brought the Cherokee people to Oklahoma, there was already another band of Cherokee people here. Another constitutional convention was needed to harmonize the governments.

Poteete said the most recent constitutional convention was called in 1999 to run more efficient democratic races.

Before the convention, there was a race for the office of principal chief in which one candidate was disqualified and another eliminated, leaving the last party unopposed. The citizens were divided over what candidates should offer the nation.

At the time, Poteete was a chair on the rules committee.

“We were grappling with how we could select more candidates in the middle of all this controversy,” he said.

The nation decided to hold hearings across Cherokee County, even in California, visiting various groups of Cherokee citizens, asking the people what they would like to see in a principal chief. That information helped them not only choose candidates for chief, but also frame a new constitution that fit the needs of the people.

Jay Hannah, a Cherokee banker from Oklahoma City, was elected to run those hearings, as well as the long nine-day constitutional convention.

The 1999 convention balanced the three branches of Cherokee government, adding more transparency and equality between them. The judicial branch was reformed so that instead of having a judicial appeals tribunal, the tribe formed the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, which is now the final arbiter of judicial controversies.

The council, which is part of the executive branch, gained more independence, placing the deputy chief on the council to provide for more civil liberties and a stronger justice system. 

This story is co-published by the Tulsa World and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Oklahoma area.

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