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Meet the candidates running for Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee Nation is holding elections tomorrow.

One of the largest tribal nations in the country will hold elections for Principal Chief, Deputy Principal Chief and several council seats.

Citizens living in at-large areas and the tribal nation's 14 county reservation will decide whether Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. should get to keep his job.

Hoskin Jr. says he's running on his record: he led the tribal nation through the pandemic, the landmark Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma and has built up the tribal nation's health care system.

His three opponents say his administration lacks transparency and that one of them would be better suited for the top job.

In April, candidates sparred in a two plus hour debate over the issues. You can watch the debate, along with the Deputy Principal Chief debate here.

You can read the Cherokee Phoenix for full coverage of all the candidates running for Deputy Principal Chief and Tribal Council Candidates here.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. - 7 p.m. Saturday, June 3rd. You can find the polling locations here.

KOSU reached out to each candidate running for Principal Chief and asked them questions about their record, their vision for the office and why they are running. Each candidate spoke about a variety of issues. The answers have been lightly edited for clarity and each candidate's response is in alphabetical order.

David Cornsilk holds up a receipt after paying to register to run for Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation.
David Cornsilk
David Cornsilk holds up a receipt after paying to register to run for Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation.

David Cornsilk

Candidate website here.

David Cornsilk is a Tahlequah resident who is best known for his work to help obtain citizenship for Cherokee Freedmen in the lawsuit known as Allen v. Council.

“I've been involved in tribal politics and in our tribal government for a very, very long time. I have served on our Constitution Convention,” he said. “The constitution that we operate under today, I was a member of that convention that created that.”

“My primary reason for deciding to run was because we have several problems going on in the Cherokee Nation, which are all attributable to the incumbent.

On the issue of COVID-19 relief funds

The Cherokee Nation received $3 billion and ARPA (American Rescue Plan) money, which is the federal COVID relief money, which was much more than the state of Oklahoma received itself. And that money is being wasted. Any time we have a social issue, this chief will just simply construct a building. 

Those buildings need people, and we don't have the medical doctors to fill thenew hospital that they're building for $450 million. We don't have behavioral health folks to fill the $7 million building that they're going to build there. They're building a $10 million gym in the middle of nowhere, and there's only about 150 Cherokees that live in that vicinity. Most of them need services. They need their houses repaired. They need homes. So those are all issues that I think the Cherokee people were ready to hear. 

On the issue of health care and behavioral health

We have health care issues here. We can't keep doctors. They come to work on the Cherokee Nation and they spend enough time to pay back their loans and then they move on. It takes almost a year for anyone to get a primary care physician through our medical services. That needs to change. But yet, at the same time, we're spending $450 million on a new hospital that we won't be able to staff. So that's very wasteful. 

You cannot have $3 billion and not do some good. I'm not going to sit here and say that there aren't good things happening at the Cherokee Nation. What I'm saying is that the things that are being done are not enough and they're not appropriate oftentimes. 

On the issue of new casino construction

[Hoskin Jr.] is still fighting for a casino in Arkansas near Russellville that started off as a $25 million investment and has now cost us $100 million. And, we're not any closer to getting that casino because the people in that county don't want us there. I would say invest in business in the reservation so that Cherokees can have jobs here. 

He's throwing away $450 million to rent a casino in Tunica, Mississippi. That casino was damaged by a hurricane. It was flooded. So we're going to have to go in and do a lot of repairs. 

I have covered nine of the 14 counties that make up the Cherokee Nation reservation and to visit with hundreds and hundreds of Cherokees and there is a level of distrust in this administration. 

Cara Cowan Watts

Cara Cowan Watts poses for a selfie with supporters of her campaign for Principal Chief in Chelsea.
Cara Cowan Watts
Cara Cowan Watts poses for a selfie with supporters of her campaign for Principal Chief in Chelsea.

Link to website here

Cara Cowan Watts lives in Claremore and has served on the Tribal Council, representing parts of Rogers and Tulsa counties from 2003 to 2015. Her running mate is David Walkingstick.

“Tribal Council was so rewarding that when people asked me to run for principal chief this year and there was a movement for change in the Cherokee Nation, that once my husband agreed that that was something, we would do, it was all go for principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 2023,” she said.

On the issue of COVID-19 Relief Funds

We estimate there's $3.2 billion in COVID money that was given to the Cherokee Nation for pandemic use. And that's in addition to a two and a half billion dollar annual budget today. And just to give you perspective, when I left the tribal council in 2015, eight years ago, the budget was approximately 700 or $800 million. We had not even reached $1 billion. And so they passed a three and a half billion dollar budget this past year. But we think that two and a half billion appears to be the budget and an additional $1 billion that was carried over of the $3.2 billion in ARPA funds. That is our federal tax money and should have accountability and transparency with it. But no one can answer the question, where did this money go? 

It appears that part of that money went to $450 million in cash for a casino in Tunica, Mississippi, where I believe we have no business going. We don't own the facility. 

10,412 Cherokee citizens could be put through a public university in Oklahoma for eight semesters or four years and a full ride for the amount of money we put into that casino. We could have educated not just in academia but in career services and gotten them to work with higher paying jobs. So, yes, I have a problem with how this group that's currently in leadership is spending our Cherokee money. 

On this issue of Cherokee Nation's health care system

This group has epically failed to increase the wages for not just our behavioral health, but for all of our health care providers and staff. Those should have increased in competition, not just due to the pandemic, but also due to the changes where we've seen inflation, whether it's the pandemic and this the shortage of labor. So they're not even addressing the shortage of labor because of the population changes. And so we need to invest in our staff, and they have failed to do that. 

Those are front line folks that deal with behavioral health issues before they become an addiction issue and self-medication or self-harm and the other things that are happening across the Cherokee Nation. We need to invest in making sure that we have adequate staff to care for our folks. That's both on the behavioral health and the medical provider side, and that comes with investing in people rather than investing in buildings. 

On the issue of McGirt

The reality is they've spent money on this for a $450 million casino in Tunica. We could have spent that on our court system and making sure that we were prosecuting things. These are structural issues we should have been spending money on to address because we knew for years this was coming. Nothing was unexpected about the court decision in Indian Country. These people are failing to do their job 

We've been throughout the 14 counties. We haven't exactly hit every community, which makes me sad because all our communities, north, south, east and west are important. I've been to some at large gatherings as well. I have relatives all over the United States who are Cherokee Nation citizens. And it's exciting to visit with everyone, make new friends, reacquaint with old friends. I get to see my relatives. But when you go across the Cherokee Nation, these are the issues we're hearing about... Our folks are fed up.

Chuck Hoskin Jr. (incumbent)

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. speaks with a voter ahead of the Cherokee Nation's upcoming eleciton.
Re-Elect Chief Hoskin and Deputy Chief Warner
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. speaks with a voter ahead of the Cherokee Nation's upcoming eleciton.

Link to website here.

Chuck Hoskin Jr. was born in the Claremore Indian Hospital and has lived in Vinita. Hoskin is the incumbent principal chief and was elected in 2019. His running mate in the race is Deputy Principal Chief Bryan Warner.

On why he should be re-elected

There are really two sources of influence and inspiration: One is my wife. She and I were active in politics, active in sort of organizing different causes.She always encouraged me to get into public service. And then my father, who served on the Cherokee Council, which is the legislative branch, and he was elected in 1995 when I was still a teenager. And it just really has been inspiring me in terms of how an elected official are to to serve and operate. And I tried to emulate that as best I can.

I think the challenges that we ran into, which really were in some ways unprecedented in Cherokee history, I wouldn't say the worst in Cherokee history. We're talking about a people that faced forced removal, but I would say unprecedented in many respects. And so it's difficult to prepare for a pandemic, except that the deputy chief and I, Brian Warner,, put people in place who possessed a level of expertise to help us do better. And we leaned on that expertise. I think particularly during the pandemic, leaning on health care expertise-these are Cherokee people who were medical experts who could help us understand the difficulties we were facing and had people just with the with a lot of compassion and a lot of drive to do things like make sure we got food out to everyone, business leaders that could help us make sure that nobody missed a paycheck. And I think that as a result, we did well

On the issue of spending COVID-19 relief money

We've shown what we've spent. We've had a legislative body that does business out in the open, as does my office. We've gotten clean audits, but I think more than that, as the Cherokee people have seen what we've done with the money, I mean, when there's $2,000 payments, which West Nofire voted against. People saw that in their hands and their bank accounts at a time when they needed it. When people are looking to the future of health care and they see that we've got a hospital that's too small and too out of date. They appreciate that we're building to the future when they see that we're investing in housing like we've never invested before. I mean, levels that blow away any previous spending levels on housing. I mean, they know that this is the right thing to do. And the Cherokee people are responding to the investment and they see firsthand. I mean, the opponents may want people to disbelieve what they see right in front of them. Disbelief that we built a world class language center, that we're investing in early childhood education. But people know better. I mean, the essence of transparency is what people really see and feel. 

On the issue of health care 

What you have to do is you have to build infrastructure that is there for the future-that is world class. Part of that is because you need to recruit and retain the best doctors and nurses. So part of it is we need to be able to show that we have great health care facilities. But the other thing is today and this is a figure that is just inconvenient to them (Hoskin Jr.'s opponents) is there are more doctors and nurses working for the Cherokee people today in our health system than any time in history. We have been leaning into what is a really challenging environment in rural America to recruit and retain doctors and nurses. But we are doing well. And, you know, just a few months ago, a law I proposed that the council enacted locks down $5 million into an endowment so that we can pay the way for Cherokees to go to school, to be doctors and nurses and drug treatment specialists and therapists, because one of the biggest challenges we have is drug addiction.

On the issue of McGirt:

When we saw McGirt-we put $30 million into scaling up our law enforcement and our prosecutor's office and victim services, that was the right thing to do. I think the scale of the challenge is one that requires continued attention and diligence. I mean, that's the reason we pressed the United States for more funding. And then we brought the attorney general of the United States to the Cherokee Nation a few years ago for that reason, to show him firsthand-there's an obligation on the part of the United States. And the result was funding for not just us, but other tribes that are affected by McGirt. So I feel like we're doing our part and we're also taking the opportunity to assert sovereignty in other ways- hunting and fishing in the Cherokee Nation is now based on your citizenship, and that's the first time it's been exercised in that way, really, since before statehood. And, of course, we asserted our right to a delegate in the House of Representatives. So we are leaning into sovereignty, we are asserting it, and we're defending it. 

If he's re-elected, what is a priority

We've got to keep our foot on the gas in terms of language revitalization. I mean, we're at a point now where the Cherokee language is no longer dying. We are revitalizing it. But we've got to continue the investment.

Wes Nofire

Principal Chief candidate Wes Nofire poses with supporters during a parade in Stilwell.
Principal Chief candidate Wes Nofire poses with supporters during a parade in Stilwell.

Link to website is here.

A former boxer and the current representative of District 3 for the tribal council. He's an outspoken member of that council and has called for an audit of spending of COVID-19 relief money.

“I was able to be a professional boxer for about ten years,” he said. “Very successful, a lot of pride in my heart to be going across the country fighting, dubbed as the Cherokee Warrior.I was proud to wear our logo and stuff on our shorts and just really try to spread around who we are as a people.I came back home in 2019 to run for Tribal Council. For the past three and a half years I've been fighting for transparency, lobbying for passage of audit investigations.”

On the issue of COVID-19 spending

The biggest thing is those who have nothing to hide, hide nothing.

The Chief has been given a blank multibillion dollar check, to just go spend it on whatever he wants, without any sort of understanding of where the funds were spent. The attack that I've had on looking and investigating these expenditures-we're seeing a lot of problems come out of it.

That's the people's money. It's not the administration's money. That's the first thing we have to clarify.The people have never had an opportunity to vote on anything. It's not that we don't maybe want a better, newer hospital, but they need to have a say so-it is a $450 million hospital. Really what we need, we realize that there are issues with the new clinic having leaks in the roof and it's just a wasted spending. 

What we need to do is we need to make sure that the citizens control the flow of cash. Those who control the flow of money control their government. And that's what we will do.

On health care and behavioral health

The drug rehab facility that's going to be built — I think first and foremost, we've got to take a look and reform our health care systems of how they're operating. We have some great employees, but the management of that in itself needs to be looked into. So administratively, we're not doing anything other than building buildings or promising to build buildings. And it's all about the work that we do in those buildings. And that's what we're going to focus on, is making sure that we have the top people coming by having a great work environment.

On the issue of McGirt

I said the biggest threat and I'll still stand with my statement, the biggest threat to Oklahomans, which we all are as citizens. Is the handling of the McGirt decision. If you look at it right now, the way that it's being handled is a threat to us because we're not being protected.

We've got problems down here. We're all equal. It does not matter. And you're to be treated with equal and respect. And that's what we don't have coming out of the current administration is treating people equally, loving everybody the same, and taking a firm stance when people are being victimized. And that's what I've done and that's what I'll stand with and stand behind. 

Citizens are just upset with the administration. They've seen all this just constant groundbreaking sessions- one after the other. They want to be included and they want to make sure that they have a say of where these investments are going. 

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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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