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CHEROKEE — Recent months have seen the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians experience a shift in tribal government driven by a new principal chief. But that’s just the start of it amid a rapid succession of political, economic and social changes.

The tribe has opened its second casino and a new hospital while weathering debates over disputed pay to public officials, potential legalization of marijuana and other hot-button issues.

For this overview of the EBCI’s key recent changes, Carolina Public Press reviewed extensive reporting by the tribe’s official newspaper, the Cherokee One Feather, and other media outlets near the reservation, along with videos of Tribal Council meetings and public records shared by elected officials and tribe members.

New principal chief brings quick shakeups

The EBCI’s new principal chief, Patrick Lambert, has launched an ambitious and sometimes controversial set of changes. Photo from Lambert’s Facebook page

In recent years, the roughly 15,000-member tribe, which is recognized by the U.S. government as sovereign in many of its internal affairs, has charted its own course while being buffeted by many of the same forces that impact its neighbors. It is unique in WNC in how its gaming earnings have brought potential promise and peril.

In September elections, Patrick Lambert, who for 22 years headed the EBCI’s Tribal Gaming Commission, which oversees the tribe’s casino operations, won election as new principal chief with more than 70 percent of the vote.

He replaced Principal Chief Michell Hicks, who held the position for 12 years and opted not to seek re-election.

Taking office in early October, Lambert instituted quick changes, shuffling the tribal government bureaucracy and instructing tribal employees to become more responsive to constituents by removing TVs from their offices and answering their phones more often.

He also shifted some high- and mid-ranking personnel up and down the ladder of their respective agencies, garnering some praise and criticism along the way. And he began publishing his key statements and policy steps online, often via his Facebook page, in a move that’s brought new layers of transparency and public scrutiny to tribal government.

Outgoing principal chief bumped from gaming directorship

For his part, former Principal Chief Hicks saw his plans interrupted by the new leadership.

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Hicks appeared to have obtained Lambert’s seat as head of the Tribal Gaming Commission, a plum position, only to have Lambert dismiss him from the job.

Appearing before the Tribal Council on Oct 8., Hicks sounded off. “This is no way to do tribal business,” Hicks said. “This is not the Cherokee way.”

In an Oct. 13 Facebook post, Lambert countered that Hicks’ administration had left the tribe’s administrative offices bereft of essential items.

“The prior administration tried to cripple us out of the gate (we didn’t have a single paper clip, stapler, post-it note, ink pens or nothing when we walked in the door) the office was stripped completely bare and EVERYTHING was gone except empty desks,” Lambert wrote.

“There was not one single file to be found. All the pictures, supplies, equipment and files are gone! Even the desk chairs are missing. … But no worry, we are rebuilding and we will succeed and make our tribe better!”

Pay dispute results in rare lawsuit

In Hicks’ final year in office, he faced a mounting controversy over pay raises that he and the Tribal Council set in motion in late 2014. An activist group of tribal members, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for Justice and Accountability, has challenged the raises, which were applied retroactively. Critics charged that such moves violated Cherokee law.

A lawsuit seeking a reversal of the raises was filed in Tribal Court in early October on behalf of the activist group. It lodged complaints against Hicks and 14 other current or former tribal officials separately.

As of late last week, the plaintiffs had received no response from the defendants, according to Meghann Burke, the group’s attorney, who noted that responses aren’t due yet.

In the meantime, the Tribal Council has grappled with whether the EBCI will cover defendants’ legal costs, deciding most recently that it will.

New powers from the state

In late October, Gov. Pat McCrory visited Cherokee to sign off on new measures that will grant the EBCI expanded law enforcement authority.

As the Asheville-Citizen Times reported, a newly enacted state law “allows the Eastern Band’s Marshal’s Office the same access to probation and parole records other law enforcement agencies in the state have, provides that limited driving privileges granted in tribal courts will apply in the rest of the state and clarifies the legal standing of tribal agencies.”

A new hospital and casino

On Oct. 15, the tribe cut the ribbon on the Cherokee Indian Hospital, an $82 million endeavor that seeks to leverage gaming revenues, in part, to tend to tribal members’ medical needs.

“Our sovereign nation, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, assumed the responsibility of the hospital from the Indian Health Service and built this facility which recognizes our culture as an integral part of our wellness,” Lambert said at the opening, according to the One Feather. “It is the self-determination of our tribe which symbolizes our success for managing our own affairs.  Our tribe has set up our own people to manage our health care.”

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Three weeks earlier, the tribe and the Harrah’s corporation opened the second major gambling facility under EBCI authority, Harrah’s Cherokee River Casino and Hotel, near Murphy on tribal-owned land off the reservation in Cherokee County.

According to Harrah’s, the casino is primed to be another cash cow for the EBCI, given its proximity to likely gamblers from Asheville, Atlanta, Chattanooga and Knoxville, all of which are roughly two hours away.

Quick reversal on marijuana debate

In the EBCI’s most recent high-profile dispute, the tribe briefly authorized a study of legalization of marijuana on the Cherokee’s lands, a possibility opened up by a recent U.S. Department of Justice policy allowing recognized Native American tribes to make their own decisions on how to regulate the drug.

At its Oct. 29 meeting, 15 Tribal Council members voted unanimously to fund a study costing as much as $200,000 on “the issues and impacts associated with legalization of cannabis for medical, industrial and recreational uses for the EBCI.”

A few weeks later, Chief Lambert vetoed the move.

“At a critical time in our Tribe’s history in dealing with all the human misery associated with the illegal recreational use of drugs I cannot in good conscience sign this legislation,” Lambert wrote in a Nov. 23 memo to Tribal Council. In his memo, Lambert both equated marijuana with harder drugs impacting the community and backed, to some degree, medical use of the drug.

At its Dec. 3 meeting, Tribal Council voted unanimously to back Lambert’s veto, while weighing the question of whether it should banish tribe members who sell drugs.

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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