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Cherokees building a better tomorrow

By Tony Thornton Published: July 18, 2004

It was even highlighted in a meeting between state rural development directors and President Bush.

The concept isn't new for the Cherokee Nation.

In the late 1970s a few years before she became chief then-tribal administrator Wilma Mankiller was approached by the tiny Bell community near Stilwell.

The community's water lines needed replacement. Residents offered to do the labor if the tribe would supply the pipes. Mankiller helped them secure a federal grant and the necessary technical assistance.

That episode resonated with some of the residents' children, who grew up and became the adults who asked the tribe for help building the homes at Fairfield.

Hence the name, the "Our Generation" project.

"They said, 'We can do that, too. This is our generation,'" tribe spokesman Mike Miller said. The first 1,350-square-foot home was finished last month at a cost of $35,000 for Richard and Melissa Stahl.

A few miles away, several more homes are in various construction stages on a heavily wooded, 10-acre plot the tribe bought.

Recipients are mostly low-income laborers who work at the Stilwell Mrs. Smith's pie plant or at a Tyson chicken farm a few miles over the Arkansas border.

They will repay the tribe for the materials, but not for the labor required for anything that requires a licensed professional, such as plumbing, electrical work and laying the foundation.

Per the residents' request, the tribe will put aside their house payments for future repairs or as seed money for more self-help home construction.

Smith is keen on the latter suggestion. His administration also has helped eight rural Cherokee communities build community centers, using residents' labor and materials funded by the tribe and the federal government.

He wants every tribal program to include a self-help component, saying it stretches the tribe's federal money while instilling pride and a sense of community.

Both have happened at Fairfield. Since finishing the first home, work has doubled as participants gain knowledge and confidence.

"This has been more successful than I even imagined," Smith said. has disabled the comments for this article.

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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