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Cherokees building a better tomorrow

By Tony Thornton Published: July 18, 2004
FAIRFIELD - Until a few months ago, Brenda Locust never had used a measuring tape, much less a nail gun or table saw.

Today, she's proficient in most aspects of basic construction, and soon, she'll have a new four-bedroom home to show for it. It will replace a cramped, two-bedroom rental house where Locust and nine family members live.

Locust is among 14 Cherokee families benefiting from a federally funded program never before attempted in the United States.

Participants agree to spend at least 20 hours a week working on their future home and those of others within the program. A team leader decides where the next day's work will be done.

The project has three main goals: provide homes to low-income tribe members, teach them the skills to maintain them, and build a community.

The third goal also satisfies an initiative of Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith, who has spent several hours doing construction work for the project.

Smith hopes to build 100 strong Cherokee communities "to withstand the pendulum of federal policy and public sentiment" regarding American Indians.

Smith's goal seems to have been met. "We're like a big family out here," Locust said.

The project also has taught the future residents job skills for a possible new career.

"Some of these guys chase chickens in chicken houses" for a living, Smith said. "Now they have a skill that they can do as well as anybody else."

The tribe provides the materials and the land. Recipients "provide the muscle and the back," said Brian Cooper, who is overseeing the project for the tribe.

Cooper's staff makes technical drawings based on basic designs done by each family.

For George and Tobie Teehee, that meant placing two bedrooms on each side of the living area and kitchen.

"I've lived in apartments all my life, and they always have all the bedrooms on one side," Tobie Teehee said.

On a recent Wednesday, George Teehee, a Tyson chicken hatchery worker, took measurements for an exterior wall.

How much home construction knowledge did he bring to the project?

"This much," he said, forming his thumb and index finger into a circle.

Idea not new for Cherokees
The project is the first of its kind nationally, said Brent Kisling, Oklahoma director of the U.S. Agriculture Department's Rural Development division.

"This is one of the neatest housing programs we have going," Kisling said.

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Editor's Note: This is the fourth in an occasional series profiling the history, accomplishments and struggles of Oklahoma's 39 American Indian tribes.

Cherokee Nation

Headquarters: Tahlequah.

Jurisdictional area: All or parts of 14 counties in northeast Oklahoma.

Total enrollment: 240,000, of whom more than 150,000 live in Oklahoma.

Membership requirements: Must be a descendant of a Cherokee who was on the Dawes Act rolls between 1899 and 1906. The lack of a specified blood quantum has helped create the nation's second-largest American Indian tribe.

Web site:

Our Generation housing
Funding: $1 million combined from U.S. Housing and Urban Development (70 percent), U.S. Agriculture Department Rural Development division (20 percent) and tribal funds (10 percent).

Families served: 14 families, who help build their own homes and others' homes.

Community: Fairfield, five miles east of Stilwell in Adair County.

Requirements: Must spend 20 hours a week working on a home, even after the recipient's home is finished. Team leader decides each day where construction will be done. Residents also repay the tribe over several years for the construction materials.

Despite their early adoption of Anglo culture and their designation as one of the Five Civilized Tribes, Cherokees were forcibly moved to present-day Oklahoma in 1838-39. More than 4,000 people, roughly one-fourth of the tribe's population, died on the Trail of Tears.

Soon after their relocation, the Cherokee people adopted a new constitution and built government buildings.

The U.S. government, seeking to take back much of the land it had given the tribe after its removal, enacted the Dawes Act in 1887. Communal land holdings ended, replaced by individual allotments of 160 acres or less.

The U.S. president appointed Cherokee Nation chiefs from 1906 to 1971, when tribe members began electing their chiefs again.

Cherokee Nation Enterprises employs more than 1,100 people and reported $25 million in 2002 revenues, with more than 90 percent coming from gambling.

The tribe is spending $75 million to convert its Catoosa casino and golf course into a destination resort. Smaller Cherokee casinos are at Fort Gibson, West Siloam Springs and Roland. Others are planned for Tahlequah and Sallisaw.

A business diversification effort includes a new foray into the wireless Internet industry.

Language initiative
Of the 6,000 to 8,000 Cherokees fluent in the traditional language, none are younger than 45, Principal Chief Chad Smith said.

"Something happened around World War II that caused people to stop teaching the language to their kids," he said.

Hoping to reverse that, Smith started a language immersion program at the Lost City school northwest of Tahlequah. Nothing but Cherokee is spoken to children in the Head Start and pre-Head Start class.

Several other public schools have Cherokee language classes.

Smith said studies have shown that young children can easily learn two languages at once. In fact, it often produces superior learning skills, he said.

Smith hopes to have 10 language immersion classes in place over the next several years.

The tribe's Web site features a link that translates English words into Cherokee.

Governing the tribe
The Cherokee Nation constitution, adopted in 1976, requires that tribal members be allowed to call a constitutional convention every 20 years.

In 1995, Cherokees voted overwhelmingly to have a new constitution drafted.

Writing it and getting tribal members' support proved easy compared to getting federal approval.

The old constitution contained a provision that any new amendment or new constitution would require approval from the U.S. president or his designee.

Framers of the new constitution sought to remove that requirement and in 1999 submitted the proposed revision. Nearly a year later, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs responded with several suggestions and a few mandatory changes.

Finally, the bureau relented and in 2002 agreed to allow for a tribal election on the new constitution and a separate vote on whether to remove the federal-approval clause.

Both met overwhelming approval by Cherokee voters in 2003.

The new constitution contains these significant changes:

Removes the deputy chief as president of the tribal council and instead creates a tribal council speaker, who is third in line of power behind the principal chief and deputy chief.

Creates two new council seats (for a total of 17) which are elected by members who live outside the tribe's jurisdictional boundaries.

Creates a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. Smith said this proposal is still being reviewed. The proposed constitution says this provision is in accordance with two centuries-old Cherokee treaties with the federal government.

Creates an attorney general. Currently the tribe's chief lawyer is called general counsel.

Creates district courts and increases the supreme court from three to five justices.

The tribe still awaits federal approval of the new constitution. Smith said a decision by the bureau is "imminent."

"But with those people, 'imminent' could mean a few years from now," Smith said.


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