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Cherokee Nation Principal, Deputy Chief candidates debate issues in Tahlequah

Cherokee Phoenix

Cherokee Nation voters got to hear from eight people vying to lead the largest tribal nation in the United States earlier this week.

All eight candidates — four for Principal Chief and four for Deputy Chief — squared off about everything from health care, spending of pandemic relief funds and tribal sovereignty during a debate hosted by the Cherokee Phoenix at the Sequoyah High School campus in Tahlequah.

There are four candidates running for Principal Chief: David Cornsilk, Cara Cowan Watts, incumbent Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Wes NoFire.

The four candidates for Deputy Principal Chief are Meredith Frailey, Bill Pearson, David Walkingstick and incumbent Bryan Warner.

Things got heated during the debate. Those challenging incumbent Principal Chief Hoskin Jr. and Deputy Chief Warner accused them of mismanagement of COVID relief funds, unnecessary pay raises for elected officials, and not spending enough to retain doctors and other health care staff at some of the tribal nation's facilities. Cowan Watts served on the Cherokee Nation tribal council for 12 years and is running for Principal Chief.

"When we look at the news and the Cherokee that's coming out of the Cherokee Nation today, it looks like we have this glorious health care system with these beautiful buildings,” she said. “But if you take one step inside those buildings, you know that they are without the providers that we need to serve our people."

Hoskin Jr. said he was proud of the investments his administration has made towards health care-including using money from the 2021 opioid settlement to break ground on a new behavioral health center, He also acknowledged that compensation was an issue.

"We are competing at a level where we have now more doctors and nurses working for us than ever. We need to keep moving in that direction," he said.

When asked what he would do for at-large citizens, Hoskin Jr. said he wanted to expand telemedicine services for people.

Cornsilk, who served on the Cherokee Nation constitution committee in 1999, said he felt the Cherokee Nation had been derailed and that the tribal nation was in violation of its constitution. Cornsilk helped Freedmen win their citizenship when he filed a lawsuit against the Cherokee Nation in the early 2000's. He's also a respected genealogist.

"What I want to do as your leader is get back to the basics, get back to the blueprint that the Cherokee people have given us as leadership to follow. If we don't do that, then our sovereignty means nothing," Cornsilk said in his opening remarks.

In 2021, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruled to remove the words "by blood" from the constitution. This was following a 2017 federal court ruling that ultimately gave Cherokee Freedmen descendants citizenship. This ruling was criticized by Cornsilk and others.

The removal of those words were meant to address exclusionary practices of who can run for office.

Hoskin Jr. was also criticized for investing $10 million in a health and wellness center in Stilwell near the Wilma P. Mankiller Center. That money came from the Public Health and Wellness Act he and Deputy Chief Warner passed in 2021.

Cowan Watts' running mate Walkingstick also made remarks about Cherokee Nation's spending during the Deputy Principal Chief Debate. He criticized two community center projects in Kenwood and Marble City that broke ground earlier this year.

He said he wanted money to be spent in all communities.

"Let's divide that, those resources, that money, and let's put it in all the communities so all our Cherokees could have access to have an ability to have a healthy lifestyle," Walkingstick said.

Frailey, the only woman running for Deputy Chief, was asked what she would do to improve the Cherokee Nation. She talked about the McGirt decision.

"In my opinion, it's an area of opportunity for the Cherokee Nation since our reservation status has been reaffirmed-We've gained more leverage, in my opinion, in negotiating with state and local governments, particularly as it relates to oil and gas development, construction issues, environmental and other land use regulations," Frailey said.

Both Hoskin Jr. and Deputy Chief Warner say they are running on their record of investments in the health care system, attacking the opioid crisis by building new behavioral health facilities and investments in language and culture.

Citizens can vote for Principal Chief, Deputy Chief and tribal council positions on Saturday, June 3rd.

Cherokee governance important for citizens

KOSU spoke with several voters at a debate watch party put on by the Hoskin Jr. and Warner campaign. Citizens there said selecting their tribal nation’s leaders is incredibly important.

Nancy Dyson is a Cherokee citizen living in Tahlequah. And she’s a landlord. When the pandemic hit, she found herself in need of assistance because her tenants couldn’t pay their rent. She says the federal and state governments didn't help. So, she turned to the Cherokee Nation.

"The Cherokee Nation was the one that helped the people. It was Chief Hoskin and his team that actually helped people in the Cherokee Nation pay their rent during COVID," said Dyson.

Wynetta Laurie gained her Cherokee citizenship in 2006. She's a Cherokee Freedmen descendant and is the president of the North Tulsa Cherokee Community Organization.

She said a new community center in her neighborhood of North Tulsa was important.

"We want to have some different services set up in the community building so that our citizens don't have to worry about transportation getting to Tahlequah or getting to Catoosa. It would be closer for them right in the area to take care of some business that they need to take care of," Laurie said.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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