New constitution remains on hold
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - Sometimes no news is good news. But regarding the Bureau of Indian Affairs' decision whether to certify Cherokee Nation's amendment question in the May 24 general election, it's not.
Todd Hembree, vice chairman of the CN Constitution Convention Commission, said there is no new news regarding the BIA and its decision on whether to certify the citizens' vote that removes Article XV, Section 10 in the 1976 CN Constitution.
The article requires federal approval for any amendments or changes to the tribe's current constitution. Cherokee citizens voted to eliminate the federal approval clause May 24.
Julian Fite, general counsel for the tribe, said the BIA has still not certified that election and that its lack of action may be based on the recent Cherokee Freedmen lawsuit filed against the Department of Interior. The Freedmen are asking the BIA to overturn recent tribal elections and appoint a trustee to oversee Freedmen rights. The Freedmen claim they were denied the right to vote.
CN officials said earlier this year that none of the Freedmen plaintiffs ever tried to register for the May 24 tribal election.
"They (BIA) are still jacking around," Fite said. "We're talking to them, but there has been no movement on that (election certification). It all seems to be tied to their concern about the Freedmen issues that have been bouncing around. They've given us no timetable. They just haven't done anything."
Hembree said he also didn't know why the BIA is taking so long to certify the election.
"We are still waiting from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that has not certified the first election process, and I really don't know what needs to be certified," he said. "I think it's clear that Cherokee people voted on it and it passed."
He said the tribe should "pressure" the BIA because the CN "can't just sit around… and just wait."
A call was made to the BIA's Muskogee Area Office by the Phoenix, but was not returned.
Because citizens voted to abolish the amendment, they were allowed to vote in the July 26 run-off election to decide whether to retain the current 1976 Constitution or ratify the new 1999 Constitution. Cherokees voted 54 percent to 46 percent to ratify the new constitution, according to Election Commission results.
If the BIA decides to certify the amendment vote, the 1999 Constitution would automatically go into effect, Hembree said.
Some of the changes that would occur under the new constitution would include creating the office of speaker that would chair Tribal Council meetings and be third in line of succession to the head of government behind the principal chief and deputy chief, add two at-large councilors to the Tribal Council, provide term limits and set staggered council terms, establish a voting process for Cherokee voters residing outside CN jurisdiction, provide a delegate to the U.S. Congress and create the office of attorney general. The new constitution would also create District Courts in the tribe's judicial system as well as renaming the Judicial Appeals Tribunal as the Supreme Court and increasing its members from three to five.
OCHELATA, Okla. –Tribal Councilor Dick Lay will host a community meeting from noon to 1:30 p.m. on April 30 at the Cooweescoowee Clinic.
A meal will be served at noon, and officials with several CN departments will be present to explain the services they provide.
For more information, call 918-822-2981.
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – A sample of an Oklahoma prison’s drinking water had more than 12 times the allowable amount of lead when it was tested last year – an amount so high that officials question whether it could really be that bad or if the test could have been misleading.
The sample taken from the Charles E. Johnson Correctional Center in Alva was unusually high, but it came from one of 30 Oklahoma water systems that have been found to have lead levels that exceeded the federally allowable limit between Jan. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2015, according to an Associated Press analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data. They were among nearly 1,400 water systems throughout the country that registered excessive lead levels in that time, the analysis showed.
The ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan, where residents have been without tap water for months, has highlighted how lead-tainted water can poison children. Even low levels have been shown to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention and academic achievement. Children age 6 and under and pregnant women – whose bones pass along stored lead to infants – are considered the most vulnerable to lead, which can also damage brains, kidneys and production of red blood cells that supply oxygen.
No amount of lead exposure is considered safe, but the federal government requires all water systems to maintain lead levels below 15 parts per billion in drinking water.
According to a USA Today analysis of the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System database, three water supplies within the Cherokee Nation had levels higher than 15 ppb: Oklahoma Ordnance Works Authority in Mayes County at 21.4 ppb, LRED (Woodhaven) in Cherokee County at 17.5 ppb and Skelly School in Adair County at 15.5 ppb to 27 ppb. Cannon MHP’s water supply in McIntosh County had a level of 18.6 ppb, according to the analysis. Part of the county falls within the tribe’s jurisdiction.
The Alva prison’s sample had 182 ppb. Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terri Watkins said authorities have reason to doubt whether the reported lead levels were accurate.
“That facility was built in the early ‘90s – there are no lead pipes,” Watkins said. “The water is all purchased from the city of Alva, and the city of Alva water tested fine. There was only one location inside the prison that tested high.”
Watkins said the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality has scheduled another test of the prison’s water system, but she didn’t know the exact date.
When more than 10 percent of tap water samples in a local system contain lead levels of at least 15 ppb, the state steps in to review the water system’s treatment for corrosive properties and update the sampling schedule as necessary.
In a letter sent on March 31, employees of the Oklahoma Veterans Center in Talihina were informed that drinking water from the facility tested in 2014 may have been contaminated with high levels of lead. Authorities tested a sample at 97 ppb, which is more than six times the permissible level.
“Absolutely, we’re concerned, and that’s why we sent out the letter to warn everybody,” said Shane Faulkner, spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs. “There’s never been any type of people reporting being sick or not feeling well from the water. We’ve had nothing like that. So while we are showing precaution, it hasn’t really turned into a problem for us.”
The health effects of lead poisoning are often only apparent months or years after exposure. Although lead exposure is most harmful for children, adults can experience serious health problems after sustained exposure to lead.
For now, veterans center employees are not being told to avoid drinking the water unless they have a severely compromised immune system, Faulkner said.
CATOOSA, Okla. – Employees from Cherokee Nation Businesses and Cherokee Nation Entertainment are once again celebrating the spring season by volunteering in a statewide initiative to make Oklahoma cleaner, greener and more beautiful.
Joining the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and Keep Oklahoma Beautiful for the 28th annual Trash-OFF, employees from the tribe’s corporate and entertainment properties cleared trash and debris from alongside local roadways.
Trash-OFF is Oklahoma’s signature event in the Great American Cleanup, the nation’s largest community improvement program. Each spring, Trash-OFF brings together thousands of volunteers working to improve the state’s appearance and the safety of its roads.
The official Trash-OFF cleanup day was April 23, but the annual effort is held from March 1 through May 31. CNB and CNE employees are volunteering throughout April and May.
“The Trash-OFF is a great way to unite communities and show pride in Oklahoma,” said Melody Johnson, ODOT Beautification coordinator. “We are fortunate to have so many caring people pitch in to keep our land grand.”
The effort to make Oklahoma roads cleaner and safer for motorists is part of a longstanding partnership between CNB and ODOT.
CNB’S involvement with cleanup projects, such as Trash-OFF and the Adopt-A-Highway program, are coordinated through the company’s Community Impact Team, which helps promote volunteerism and community engagement for all employees.
“We live in such a beautiful part of this country. It is an honor to be responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of the two-mile stretch of Highway 59 South, near our casino,” said Amber Nelson, Cherokee Casino Sallisaw marketing manager, “Many of our team members drive that route every day and feel proud each time they see the Adopt-A-Highway sign with our name on it.”
To beautify local communities, CNB and CNE have additional cleanup days scheduled throughout the year. All eight of CNE’s Cherokee Casinos and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa have separate CIT teams that also participate in ODOT’s Adopt-A-Highway program.
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – According to courthouse officials, the Cherokee Courthouse will be closed on April 27-28 for building maintenance.
“We will be open on Friday for normal business hours,” officials said.
The courthouse is located at 101 S. Muskogee Ave. For more information, call 918-458-9440.
WASHINGTON (AP) – The Obama administration asked the Supreme Court on April 19 to uphold a federal law aimed at people who have been convicted of repeated acts of domestic violence on Indian lands.
The case argued at the high court tests whether the law and its stiff prison terms can be used against defendants who did not have lawyers in earlier domestic violence convictions in tribal courts.
The U.S. appeals court in San Francisco threw out a 46-month federal prison term for defendant Michael Bryant Jr. because his earlier domestic violence convictions were handled without a lawyer in tribal courts on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana.
Several justices seemed skeptical of the argument of Bryant's lawyer, Steven Babcock. Bryant never challenged his earlier convictions or prison sentences of up to a year. Congress has put limits on prison terms imposed by tribal courts.
"So if it's a valid conviction, why can't you use it?" Justice Stephen Breyer asked.
Babcock said the use of the earlier convictions in prosecuting Bryant on new charges violated his constitutional right to a lawyer.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees an attorney for criminal defendants in state and federal courts. Under the Indian Civil Rights Act, defendants have the right to hire their own attorneys in tribal court but are not guaranteed that one will be retained by the court for them.
Justice Department lawyer Elizabeth Prelogar said Congress, in 2005, provided for prosecutions in federal court and lengthier penalties for repeat offenders "in response to the epidemic of domestic violence in Indian Country."
Bryant has more than 100 tribal court convictions on his record, including five domestic violence convictions between 1997 and 2007, the government said. In 1999, he attempted to strangle his live-in girlfriend and hit her over the head with a beer bottle, the government said. In 2007, Bryant beat up his girlfriend and kneed her in the face, breaking her nose, the government said.
In 2011, federal agents arrested him under the law at issue on charges he beat two women in the span of several months.
Prelogar said the appeals court was wrong to rule in favor of defendants like Bryant "who have abused and battered their intimate partners again and again."
A decision in U.S. v. Bryant, 15-420, is expected by late June.
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – On June 5, 10 Cherokee Nation cyclists and seven Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians cyclists will begin a three-week bicycle ride from New Echota, Georgia, to travel along the northern route of the Trail of Tears. The “Remember the Removal Memorial Ride” ride is held to commemorate the forced removal of Cherokee people from their southeastern homelands in the 1830s.
Since late January, the CN group has been performing physical training in preparation for the journey. And since March, the riders have been training with their bicycles.
Kelsey Girty, 24, of Gore, said the riders begin their training day with Cherokee language and history classes at the Tribal Complex in Tahlequah before preparing their bikes to ride. On April 16, they rode hills to prepare for the hills and mountains they will see in eastern Tennessee and beyond in June.
She said the bicycle training she has taken part in has made her stronger.
“I remember the first day (of training) we went up a hill and it was like so difficult, and then we went up it two weeks later, and it was nothing. We’ve already overcome a lot of obstacles,” she said.
Girty said she grew up playing sports and knows about self-discipline to train and practice on her own. Two days a week she lifts weights and another two days she rides her bicycle or runs, she said, in addition to the training with the nine other riders.
Along with preparing for the nearly 1,000-mile journey, all of this year’s cyclists, seven women and three men, must complete a 70-mile ride in one day before they are allowed to go on the trip.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot. We’ve done 54 miles, which is getting us close. That’s the furthest we’ve done so far,” she said.
Girty said she’s heard about the Trail of Tears all of her life from family and in school but wants to learn more about it by tracing the actual trail.
“This is just a way to actually see it with my own eyes and feel it,” she said.
She said she also wants to see the removal route in honor of her grandmother, who told her stories about the Trail of Tears, to make her proud.
Amber Anderson, of Warr Acres, guessed she was in for a tough day after she was told the cyclists would be training on hills during their April 16 training ride.
They tackled a steep hill on Horseshoe Bend Road south of Tahlequah, which has a 7 percent grade and is about a mile long. The 10 cyclists rode up the hill twice along with other steep hills on the day’s route.
“It’s challenging. On weekends we train for two days and then on weekdays they encourage us to train every couple days as well,” Anderson said.
At home she trains in a gym twice a week and rides 30 to 40 miles two days a week.
She credits ride coordinators Kevin Jackson and Sarah Holcomb for encouraging them to improve and for providing the training needed to prepare for the six states they will cross before returning to Oklahoma.
“With every ride everyone seems to be meshing together a little bit better, getting to know each other, getting comfortable around each other,” Anderson said. “It’s really great to work with a team of individuals who are passionate about our culture and are here for the same reasons.”
Anderson said her family traveled the northern route of the Trail of Tears in the winter of 1838-39, and she said she not only wants to memorialize the Cherokee people who perished during the forced removals, but also celebrate the Cherokee people’s “tenacity.”
Blayn Workman, of Muldrow, seemed unfazed by the hill work on April 16.
“Whenever we see someone coming up a hill we always cheer them on and clap and tell them ‘good job,’” he said. “I think we’re in pretty good shape considering we’ve only had our bikes for about four weeks now.”
He said he applied to go on the trip because he wants to learn more about his ancestors, culture and about the trail.
“In schools they only really teach about the Treaty of New Echota. I just wanted to further my knowledge about it (Trail of Tears),” he said. “I want to see the sights my ancestors used to see every day. I want to see the trail they walked. I want to see the monuments, and I want to become connected with that side of myself.”