Steve Russell: Cherokee constitutional crisis

"My tribe's constitutional crisis was a case study in the value of checks and balances I wrote about in a previous column. I fear that its current government will be an object lesson in what happens when they are absent.

I first supported the current chief, Chad Smith, when he was a forward-looking, dynamic and well-spoken young lawyer. He was running against one George Bearpaw, the chosen successor of Wilma Mankiller. I was not opposed to Mankiller, but her endorsement was not enough to convince me when I looked at the candidates. Then a shocking thing happened that cemented my support for Smith.

After Smith came in third behind Bearpaw and council member Joe Byrd, Mankiller's chosen candidate was disqualified for reasons not relevant here. Smith filed a lawsuit in tribal court arguing that there should be a runoff between the two highest vote-getters who were not disqualified. The case could have gone either way, but he lost. The effect of this was to elect Joe Byrd with less than 50 percent of the total vote, not completely unlike the U.S. Supreme Court case of Bush v. Gore. Smith was urged not to fold his cards, but to complain to the BIA or carry on litigation in federal court. He declined, and Byrd became chief.

Byrd was a disaster and he led the Cherokee government into a constitutional crisis that was completely unnecessary by firing the entire Cherokee Marshal Service and engineering the impeachment of all the tribal judges with less that a quorum of the tribal council.

My point is not that Byrd was a poor choice. We had no way of knowing that. As far as I knew at the time, he was an all right choice who had beaten a candidate I liked better - but he was my chief.

My point is that Smith refused to disregard Cherokee sovereignty and fight on when he lost in tribal court. He understood that the process was more important than his fate. That understanding was the reason I supported him until the last election."

Get the Story:
Steve Russell: Cherokees double down with Chad Smith (Indian Country Today 12/14)

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Steve Russell: The price of 'sovereignty' (11/23)
Steve Russell: Getting along in Indian Country (11/9)
Steve Russell: Life lessons from a poker game (10/26)