Indianz.Com > News > ‘Heartbroken’: Leader of Cherokee Nation mourns death of young student
Owasso, Oklahoma
A view of Owasso, Oklahoma. Photo: Janice Waltzer
‘Heartbroken’: Leader of Cherokee Nation mourns death of young student
Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The leader of the Cherokee Nation is “heartbroken” over the passing of a 16-year-old student who died within reservation boundaries in Oklahoma under circumstances that are being investigated.

“The death of Nex Benedict is a tragedy,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement on Tuesday, using one of the preferred names for the student who passed away following an incident at a public high school earlier this month. “As parents, the First Lady and I are heartbroken.”

“As Chief, the health and welfare of all children within the Cherokee Nation Reservation is of concern,” Hoskin continued.

But Hoskin noted that the Cherokee Nation has not found any records indicating that the student was a tribal citizen. Earlier on Tuesday, Indianz.Com reported on the lack of verifiable information.

“Upon searching our database, we have no indication that Nex was a citizen of the Cherokee Nation,” Hoskin said. “However, Nex was a child living within our reservation and deserved love, support and to be kept safe.”

A Cherokee citizen who had posted about the tragic death told Indianz.Com that she wasn’t sure of tribal affiliation either. Robin McLain Smith, who is an administrator of an unofficial social media page for meetings of the Cherokee Nation Council, said she had heard about the student from fellow citizens.

“I got the info from a couple other Cherokee citizens who said they were — but I am not 100 percent sure how because I too talked with officials at Cherokee Nation and so far can’t find them as being a citizen,” Smith told Indianz.Com on Tuesday afternoon. “We have not ruled out possibly another tribe.”

Following Indianz.Com’s inquiry, Smith updated her social media post about the student to explain that she wasn’t able to verify Cherokee citizenship.

But by the time Chief Hoskin shared his statement, the claims about Cherokee affiliation had spread far and wide. Even Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan (D), a citizen of the White Earth Nation who is the highest-ranking Native woman in executive office, conveyed her condolences about the young person’s death.

“Nex Benedict should be alive today. My deepest condolences to their friends, family, and to the Cherokee Nation,” Flanagan said in a post that showed up on her social feeds in the early morning hours on Tuesday. “May we honor their memory by continuing the work to ensure that every child is safe to be who they are no matter where they grow up. Lord have mercy.”

Flanagan’s posts on Instagram and Threads included a graphic created by Freedom Oklahoma, which advocates for 2S (Two Spirit) and LGBTQ+ rights in the Sooner State. The group originally identified the student as being a “citizen of the Cherokee Nation” and featured what it said was a “Cherokee rose motif” on the image.

As of early Tuesday evening, Freedom Oklahoma had not responded to an inquiry placed via email earlier in the day about the online posts. A Cherokee Nation citizen admonished the group for sharing unverified information.

“This [is] horrible, but Nex wasn’t a citizen of Cherokee Nation,” Jen Deerinwater, a Two Spirit and multiply-disabled journalist who spent formative years on Cherokee homelands in Oklahoma, wrote in a comment on the group’s post. “The tribe has even put out a statement about this.”

“Confirm tribal enrollment before you publish!” added Deerinwater, who currently lives and works in Washington, D.C. “This has been extra traumatizing and triggering for some of us who are 2LGBTQIA citizens of Cherokee Nation.”

Later on Tuesday, Freedom Oklahoma acknowledged the error in tribal affiliation. Yet while the group insisted on social media that the student was a “citizen of the Choctaw Nation” its website admitted that even that information has not been verified.

In an update to the original post, the group said “we ultimately do not have confirmation of citizenship from the Choctaw Nation,” adding: “We respect tribal sovereignty with regard to recognizing who is and is not a citizen of a tribal nation, and we don’t wish to suggest infringing on that sovereignty in any way.”

Indianz.Com placed an inquiry via email to the Choctaw Nation late in the afternoon on Tuesday to ask about affiliation. The Choctaw Reservation lies to the south of the Cherokee Reservation.

But with the student’s passing on Cherokee lands, Cherokee Chief Hoskin has directed the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service to offer support to local law enforcement. The Owasso Police Department is investigating the death, which it said occurred following a “physical altercation” at the Owasso High School in Owasso, located on the Cherokee Reservation.

“The facts relating to Nex’s death are not yet fully clear,” Hoskin said in the statement. “We should take care to support law enforcement and other authorities as they investigate this matter.”

“However, the public sentiments expressed in response to Nex’s death move me to reaffirm a statement I made in January on the subject of celebrating diversity, equity, and inclusion in public education,” Hoskin continued. “‘All children .. benefit from learning in environments in which we celebrate diversity and recognize the dignity of everyone’s experience.’”

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), a Republican who happens to be a Cherokee citizen, has repeatedly derided efforts to address diversity, equity and inclusion as discriminatory. During his tenure, the state has become known for adopting anti-Two Spirit and anti-LGBTQIA policies, including the enactment of a new state law that bans gender-affirming health care.

Hoskin’s statement strikes against such sentiments, utilizing the preferred name for the student who died on Cherokee lands.

“The more we learn about Nex’s life, the more we come to know a wonderful child whose experience and identity mattered and was worth celebrating,” the Cherokee chief said. “Above all, Nex deserved to live a full life. It was cut tragically short. May Nex rest in peace.”

Sue Benedict, who is Nex’s mother, also embraced her child’s gender identity, which has been described online as non-binary. In an update on Tuesday, she pledged to use some of the money being raised on her behalf to help other youth affirm their choices and experiences.

“I lost my child, the headstone will have correct name of their choice,” the update stated. “The rest of monies will go to other children dealing with the right to be who they feel they are, in Nex Benedict’s name.”

@crushingcolonialism We are devastated at the anti-queer violence that led to the lose of Nex Benedict’s life. While Nex was not a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, they still lived on the tribe’s reservation. “How Nex died impacts every Cherokee Nation citizen and 2LGBTQIA+ person as it’s meant to strike fear into us and to silence us. We cannot be silent. We must fight like hell for the living and honor our ancestors and those lost.” said founding executive director, @Jen Deerinwater. #NexBenedict #FYP #TwoSpirit #LgbtTikTok #NativeTikTok #IndigenousTikTok #CrushColonialism #NonBinary ♬ original sound – Crushing Colonialism

Growing up on the Cherokee Nation, Deerinwater lived in Collinsville and in Owasso, where Nex was attending high school. In a video shared on social media, the journalist expanded on the struggles that Two Spirit and LGBTQIA youth face on reservations and in Oklahoma.

“We can’t just tell our children: ‘Life will get better some day,'” Deerinwater said in the video posted by Crushing Colonialism, an organization they founded in the nation’s capital. “We need to do better for them now. Because their blood is on our hands.”

In an update on Tuesday, Owasso Public Schools confirmed reports of a “physical altercation” that took place at the high school in the community on February 7. The new statement said one parent was urged to take their child to a “medical facility for further examination” but no identifying information was provided in light of the ongoing law enforcement investigation.

“We understand that for many, additional questions remain, however these are the facts that we are able to communicate at this juncture,” the statement read. “We will continue to cooperate fully with the Owasso Police Department’s investigation.”

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Earlier on Tuesday, the police department said it responded on February 7 to a “local hospital” in connection with a student who had been involved in the altercation at Owasso High School. The statement did not provide identifying information but said the same young person was “rushed back to a hospital” the following day before passing away.

In an obituary, Nex’s family identified their loved one’s passing as having occurred on February 8. The funeral took place last Thursday.

In the statement, the Owasso police did not say whether they were taking the victim’s possible status as a tribal citizen into account. It only referred to the results of the investigation being submitted to state authorities in Tulsa County for “prosecution review.”

But since Nex’s death occurred on a reservation, federal authorities might also play a role. Tulsa County falls within the Northern District of Oklahoma, where the U.S. Attorney’s Office has taken on additional work prosecuting crimes in Indian Country following a historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling that led to the reaffirmation of tribal boundaries — including those of the Cherokee Nation — in the state.

Whether the U.S. government can exercise jurisdiction over a crime in Indian Country depends on multiple and occasionally conflicting factors. The tribal status of the victim, as well as any perpetrators, along with the nature of the offense, are all taken into account.

Some federal criminal laws in Indian Country also have been interpreted to require a certain degree of Indian “blood” for determining U.S. jurisdiction. Neither the Cherokee Nation nor the Choctaw Nation base tribal citizenship on blood quantum.

Note: The author of this story serves on the board of Crushing Colonialism, a non-profit founded by Jen Deerinwater, who serves as executive director. The board position is a volunteer, unpaid position.

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