Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, opened UNC Asheville’s new Native American Speaker Series with an informal talk and extensive Q&A on April 10.

Hicks has served as chief for 10 years, and is halfway through his third term in office.

Addressing a crowd of about 175 in the university’s Alumni Hall, Hicks said that the tribe’s 14,000 or so current members are motivated by both the Cherokees’ historic resilience and their need to innovate today.

“Native people are survivors,” he said. “We adapt, we survive and we move on.”

In an hour-long discussion driven mostly by questions from the crowd, Hicks touched on the basics and nuances of life on the Qualla Boundary, as the Eastern Band’s territory is known, and explained his approach to problems old and new.

Protection of the tribe’s sovereignty — “whether it’s our court system, or dealing with taxation issues, or simply the issue of educating on why we’re still sovereign” — is a perpetual pursuit, Hicks said.

He said he remains frustrated, for example, with federal laws that restrict the prosecution of major crimes by tribal justice systems. Such cases are often shifted to county, state and federal courts.

“If you look at American history, tell me how that makes sense,” Hicks said. “If you’re on somebody else’s property, and you commit a crime, then the law of that land should apply.”

Hicks said that he and other members of tribal government strive to remind state and federal officials of the tribe’s autonomy in various matters.

“There’s a battle every day, if you will, related to protecting who we are as a sovereign nation,” he said. “We’re in a protection mode all of the time.”

At the same time, he noted, the tribe has forged agreements like the gaming pact with the state of North Carolina, allowing for the operation of Cherokee’s lucrative casinos. Proceeds from gaming have provided a windfall for tribe members and the tribe’s 180-some educational, governmental and social-service programs.

Diversity and shared challenges

For all their shared history, members of the tribe are a diverse bunch, Hicks stressed. In response to questions about Cherokee spirituality, for example, he noted that members attend some 40 different churches, of various denominations.

Whatever the common heritage, “everybody’s not going to fit in the same mold,” Hicks said.

Still, some modern-day problems pose common challenges for many in the tribe.

“The biggest issue that we face today as native peoples, I think, is our health,” Hicks said. “Unfortunately, 22 percent of our membership is in some phase of being a diabetic.”

Asked about substance abuse, Hicks said, “Alcohol’s been an issue, but we’re seeing more of a pill issue now than anything else … prescription pills. I know the rest of the nation is dealing with that too.”

The tribe invests in health care, education and prevention to address such concerns, Hicks said.

“Education is the biggest aspect of our survival, going forth,” he said — and also a key part of maintaining Cherokee identity.

“How in the world can any nation lose a language?” Hicks asked. Beginning in the late 1800s, he noted, Native American students were sent to federal boarding schools “where the goal was basically to wash the Indian out of the Indian.”

Now, the Eastern Band has an elementary school where Cherokee is taught as the first language. It was started nine years ago and has grown to include 60 students.

All of the tribe’s schools are required to meet state standards, but the tribe supplements the regular curricula with special classes on Cherokee culture and history.

The tribe’s ongoing quest for self-determination, Hicks said, is aided by its sense of communal concerns.

“In my responsibilities, I probably do more social services than anything,” he said. “We’re a close-knit community, and we’re there to take care of each other.”

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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