OPINION: Fighting for justice in Cherokee Nation
When the U.S. Surgeon General visited with Oklahoma tribal leaders last May, he declared that the “prescription opioid epidemic that is sweeping across the U.S. has hit Indian country particularly hard.” This statement especially applies to the Cherokee Nation, where opioid-related overdoses have more than doubled in recent years and more and more Cherokee Nation citizens suffer from opioid addiction. The opioid epidemic has affected every facet of our society: from our economy and our hospitals to our schools and our homes. Our children’s health and well-being is especially threatened by the epidemic, putting the future of the Cherokee Nation itself at risk.
When I was elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 2011, I made a commitment to protect the health and welfare of our nearly 350,000 citizens about half of whom live inside our sovereign tribal boundaries in northeast Oklahoma. We are made up of many small communities and we feel the impacts of the opioid epidemic every day, as we watch our friends, neighbors, children and parents grapple with the consequences of opioid addiction. That’s why I take this epidemic so seriously and why we have taken proactive measures to fight it. To curb abuse at the point of care, our doctors and hospitals implemented a prescription monitoring program (“PMP”). Long before it was required, our healthcare system also adopted information technologies to stop illegal distribution of prescription opioids.
Despite our best efforts, the crisis is still raging through our community. This is a matter of life and death, which is why we are doing everything in our power to prevent bad actors from flooding the Cherokee Nation with prescription opioids. Large distributors and retailers operating in the Cherokee Nation—McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., AmerisourceBergen, CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., and Walmart Stores, Inc.—have fueled this epidemic by saturating our society with these highly-addictive painkillers, ignoring obvious warning signs that these drugs are not landing in the right hands. We pay for our citizen’s health care from cradle to grave and this epidemic has cost us hundreds of millions of dollars, not to mention the thousands of lives lost and ruined. That’s dollars we could be using for our schools, hospitals, roads or new housing projects. I cannot stand by as Cherokee Nation citizens suffer while these companies continue to make huge profits at our expense.
We must act now to protect our future – the next generation. No one has felt the impact of the opioid crisis more than our children. For children born into families struggling with opioid addiction, their tragic story is one of a cycle of abuse and neglect. According to a recent study, pregnant Native American women are up to 8.7 times more likely to be diagnosed with opiate dependency or abuse. This translates to a high volume of Cherokee babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome – a disease with lifelong physical, mental, and emotional impacts on the child. Many of these babies must stay in the hospital for weeks and some must be immediately transferred to Tulsa-area hospitals via emergency helicopter to receive life-saving care. These infants are then immediately placed in our foster system. Cherokee families are torn apart before they have a chance to succeed and our children, families, and communities suffer as a result.
Enough is enough. The opioid epidemic is ripping apart families, straining our society’s resources, and wreaking havoc across the Cherokee Nation. That is why we’ve taken matters into our own hands, and are going to make sure distributors and retail pharmacies are held accountable for their negligence and greed. If the drug distributers and retailers in our communities fulfilled their duty to act as a “check” on the system by monitoring, reporting, and preventing illegal opioid activity, the epidemic could have been stopped. My hope is that this case will bring justice to our Nation and serve as an example to other communities dealing with the social and financial strains of the opioid epidemic.
Preserving and defending our culture and values is important to all of us as Cherokees. One of our biggest responsibilities is protecting the air, water, land and habitat of our natural world. All Cherokees should feel an innate desire to protect these resources for our current and our next seven generations. It’s our sacred obligation.
Instead of being part of the problem that contributes to more global climate change and decay, we are taking the lead in becoming part of the solution and looking for forward-thinking ways to preserve our natural resources. I recently signed two new executive orders that will take steps toward better protecting our natural resources.
The first will reduce the carbon emissions of our tribal operations by 25 percent by the year 2027. Scientific evidence tells us that global climate disruption is threatening our very existence. Continuing to put more pollutants in the air is devastating to Mother Earth. As part of our efforts to lower carbon emissions, we have entered into a major wind energy project that will provide 200 megawatts of clean energy.
We are also constructing a solar energy canopy at the tribal headquarters that will provide clean energy to the W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex, and it will allow visitors and employees the opportunity to charge electric vehicles.
The second executive order limits the use of Styrofoam. Styrofoam is a source of trash that has long-term negative effects for our environment, including our waters. Going forward, we will use recyclable or compostable materials whenever we can so that we’re not leaving today’s problems for future generations to solve.
We will never stop looking for ways to protect this beautiful earth that our Creator gave us. Almost two years ago I appointed Sara Hill, our first-ever secretary of Natural Resources, to proactively protect the future of our water and all of our natural resources. I encourage everyone to put more thought into their daily actions. One way to do that is to look for ways to avoid using Styrofoam at home and at work, and take the pledge to avoid using it whenever you can. I hope our partners will follow our lead and join us in making this commitment.
Cherokee Nation remains a leader in Indian Country when it comes to environmental programs. We will use a $300,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to create a national tribal mentoring program that focuses on the development and reporting of water quality assessments.
CN staff will help tribes across the country use a new EPA reporting tool. This online system allows states, territories, tribes, the EPA and other partners to submit water quality data using an integrated reporting process.
During the past year, we have been active within our 14 counties and across Indian Country when it comes to the conservation of water. Now, with this grant from the EPA, a new door has been opened for our environmental programs. Tribes across the country will have a strong mentor and partner in the CN. Not only does the CN depend on the technical ability and excellence of our Environmental Programs staff, but tribes across the country depend on them, too.
Our environmental programs will play a vital role in educational efforts and outreach to tribal water programs. We are looking forward to working with various EPA regional water programs and tribal water staff across the nation.
Remaining a leader in environmental preservation supports CN’s economic, social and cultural well-being and balance. This charge will always remain one of our greatest obligations.
Protecting the environment and practicing conservation principles have always been important to the Cherokee people. It’s fitting that the 65th annual Cherokee National Holiday theme is “Water is Sacred.” It is something that resonates with all of us as Cherokees. Water is sacred to our people and has been forever. Water has been part of our ceremonies. Water has sustained us with food and an ability to grow our crops. Water is something we share and celebrate with our families. Our close relationship to water, the land and the traditional knowledge about our natural surroundings has always been part of who we are. Cherokee values and these historic ideas, established over multiple generations, about ecological preservation benefit all of northeast Oklahoma.
Over the past year, Cherokee Nation has put a focused effort to preserve water rights and natural resources. We have been active within our 14 counties and across Indian Country when it comes to conservation of our water. CN established the office of the secretary of Natural Resources to address a various environmental issues. Secretary Sara Hill oversees the programs and services related to preservation and conservation of our air, land, water and animal and plant life.
As a tribal government, and as Cherokees, we have a responsibility to protect the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the land we live on. We will unequivocally fight for the rights of our people to live safely in their communities. We have a right and a responsibility to protect our water. It is our duty for the next seven generations.
An excellent example of our renewed conservation efforts was a recent federal court decision naming CN the court-appointed steward of restoration efforts of Saline Creek in Mayes County. David Benham, a CN citizen originally from the Kenwood area and a property owner along the creek bank, personally sued Ozark Materials River Rock for the extreme damage done to the water. The company, which will pay for the restoration effort, mined at the foot of the creek, removing the gravel at the lower reaches. Erosion upstream redirected the creek and eroded vegetation, which in turn increased stream temperature and algae growth.
It is appropriate that the court appointed CN as the steward of Saline Creek and will manage the recovery of the damaged areas and easement. Saline Creek has spiritual as well as historical significance to CN citizens in that area. Additionally, it is one of the most beautiful creeks in northeast Oklahoma.
Earlier this year, Secretary Hill’s team defended the Arkansas and Illinois rivers, as CN played a critical role in preventing Sequoyah Fuels Corporation from disposing radioactive waste near important waterways. We are working with the company to find appropriate off-site disposal.
Recently, the tribe also earned a $75,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency that will help support the critical environmental work that we do at the local level. The partnership between CN and the EPA benefits our people, our environmental endeavors, and the health and beauty of northeast Oklahoma.
Together with the EPA’s federal dollars, we can sustain the environmental protection efforts that preserve our clean air, healthy land and fresh water. The CN created a five-person board, the Environmental Protection Commission, which works with Secretary Hill to help the tribe administer its environmental programs and develop community and education programs.
The CN is also a founding member of the Inter-Tribal Environmental Council, an organization that helps protect the health of Native Americans, tribal natural resources and the environment. This tribal organization was created to provide support, technical assistance, program development and training to member tribes nationwide. Today, almost 50 tribal governments are members and share best practices.
Our tribal government strives to build a better future for our people and fights for the rights of our people to live safely in their communities. Protecting the environment through CN’s active and progressive conservation programs is one of the most important things we can do to ensure we achieve that goal.
Some Cherokee Phoenix readers may have seen the “Remember the Removal” bicycle riders out on local roads the past two months training for the upcoming ride from New Echota, Georgia, to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, through seven states. I am one of 14 riders from the Cherokee Nation who will take part in this year’s ride.
For those of you not familiar with the ride, it is done annually to commemorate the forced removal of our Cherokee ancestors from their homelands in 1838-39. Most of our people left in the fall of 1838 in 13 organized detachments and endured a harsh winter in 1839 before reaching Indian Territory.
I was part of the group that did the first 1,000-mile ride in 1984, which was meant to educate people along the route about the forced removal and give students like me hands-on experiences that would foster leadership qualities, instill confidence and improve our self-esteem. A man named Michael Morris thought a bike ride from the old Cherokee homelands would be a good way to give us those experiences. He was right.
Because the ride was grueling and had never been attempted before, the 19 riders formed bonds that are still strong today. We survived two-lane mountain roads in North Carolina and Tennessee where some large trucks did not like sharing the road with us. I rode my bike into some weeds and bushes before a dump truck could nudge me into them on a mountain in Tennessee. We survived racism in Illinois and the patchy and hilly roads of Missouri before riding into northern Arkansas and taking on the Ozark Mountains. By then we were stronger. Our thighs were noticeably larger and much darker than that had been three weeks earlier, and we were confident we were going to finish strong.
I remember during the trip being excited about what view was over the next hill while riding with my small group of four riders nicknamed the “Coaster-Barelies” because we weren’t the fastest group, and we may have coasted a little too much going down hills when we had the opportunity. Jeff, Clayton and Marvin were like brothers to me when we finished, and it was hard to finish and go our separate ways.
For me the trip gave me confidence, and it showed me I am capable of a lot mentally and physically. It also gave me a hunger to seek out adventures, which has lasted to this day.
So, when I was asked last January if I would be the first official CN “Mentor Rider,” my sense of adventure wrestled with my common sense. I am now 50 and being around the bike ride the past few years I know the training is tough even for a 20-year-old. I thought about it for a couple of days and believed I could do it. My mind was going to drag my body along on another adventure. It has been great and tough as I imagined it would be. My legs seemed to remember what it is like to ride a bike for most of a day, but my left shoulder has been less cooperative. So, I keep a container of Icy Hot handy and hope the aroma of the liniment isn’t too strong for the other cyclists.
I’ve also had the pleasure of training with a good group of young people. These people from throughout the CN volunteered to take part in this ride, to put themselves through the pain riding a bicycle an average of 60 miles a day. They have already grown and changed during training, but they will grow and change even more before the ride is over. It happens every year. They might have varied reasons for doing the ride, but they all understand the most important reason is to honor our ancestors. Our tenacious ancestors. They would not give up on the trail and when they arrived here 178 years ago to rebuild.
Every year the riders are told they will not make this trip on their own. No matter how strong they are they will need the support of their fellow riders. It’s true, and we also need the support of the Cherokee people, so keep us in your thoughts and prayers.
I feel fortunate that I get to travel the trail again with some good people, and even though I’ve been down it before, I get to see what’s over the next hill with older and different eyes.
Cherokee Nation has a strong Indian Child Welfare program, and we have always emphasized the importance of protecting our children. It is important for us to highlight the work of our tribe’s child welfare workers and our many caring Cherokee foster parents. Currently, our ICW team is working cases on approximately 1,612 children here in Oklahoma and throughout the United States. We have almost as many cases here in our jurisdiction as we do outside it---716 children inside the 14-county jurisdiction and 896 outside the jurisdiction. Our tribal citizenship is the largest in America, and those numbers are reflected in the high number of Cherokee children in need.
Although we have had a slow and steady increase in foster homes, it is still not near enough to have every one of our Cherokee youth in a Native home. Two years ago we only had 17 regular foster homes, and today we now have 46 who regularly step up to foster Cherokee children in need. However, we need more homes. A decent number of our children are placed with relatives, and a high percentage of those children are in non-Native foster homes.
Those kids in non-Native homes who do not reunify with their family or are placed with another Native family become eligible to be adopted by the family they are placed with. To put that into perspective, if 400 Cherokee children are in non-Native homes this year and a non -Native family adopts them, we lose 400 children. If you magnify that even more, in a 10-year span, we risk losing 4,000 Cherokee children.
The importance of placing Cherokee children in Cherokee fosters homes is vital. Children deserve the right to grow up in a safe, loving environment, and they deserve the right to maintain their tribal ties to Cherokee values and lifeways.
Our goal is to have more foster homes waiting on children than we have children waiting on homes. Unfortunately, I do not see our Indian Child Welfare department ever working themselves out of a job. We have a long way to go, but I can see progress happening in this area, especially in the past decade. We have worked aggressively with state agencies and continue to collaborate with the faith community to address this need.
Taking it a step further, Cherokee Nation employees will soon be able to use family leave time when accepting an ICW foster placement. A lack of workplace support should not be a reason families close their homes to foster children. Cherokee Nation is one of the only employers in Oklahoma and across Indian Country to enact a progressive policy enabling a family to address the unique issues with foster care: the required doctor appointments, school transfers or daycare placements, and essential bonding time. If the foster parents are unable to take time off, it compromises our employees’ personal leave and paycheck and compromises our Cherokee children receiving the best care.
Cherokee culture and values teach us that we belong to each other, and we have a responsibility to take care of our children and support the adults who are caring for them. Our children deserve a permanent, safe home life. Cherokee Nation’s ICW team works to create that for our children, and foster parenting must be supported in the workplace.
The very best thing for our children is reunification with their parents or placed with family. If family is not possible, then it is our duty and privilege as a tribal family to step forward and care for our Cherokee children. We all come from one fire. Our ancestors often did this without hesitation when children lost their family during the Trail of Tears and the rebuilding of our tribal society here in Oklahoma. One fact is true then and true today: Children are sacred, and their care is a shared responsibility.
If you have ever considered the path of foster care or are interested in helping in other ways, please contact Cherokee Nation Indian Child Welfare at 918-458-6900 or visit <a href="http://www.cherokeekids.org" target="_blank">www.cherokeekids.org</a>.
At President Donald Trump’s request, a portrait of former President Andrew Jackson now hangs in the Oval Office. Commentators have cast Trump’s populist appeal and inaugural address as “Jacksonian,” while others have tried to emphasize their differences. One writer lauded Jackson as “the president who, more than any other, secured the future of democracy in America.”
However, these comparisons overlook experiences of marginalized people while defining history in terms of the ideologies of progress and American exceptionalism.
Jackson’s intolerant attitudes and harsh treatment of African-American and Native American peoples have not gone without mention. They are indeed inescapable. As a scholar who has written about Native American history and literature, I am aware of how often the perspectives of Native people are neglected in conventional historical discourse.
The criticisms Trump has directed against Indian casinos in the 1990s, along with his insult of calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” casts his veneration of Jackson in a particularly disturbing light.
Jackson was a staunch supporter of slavery and policies that forcibly removed Indians from their lands. The passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act was aimed at isolating Native peoples to prevent conflict over territory and allow increased settlement.
The solution, originally conceived by Thomas Jefferson, was to empower the government to evict Native peoples living east of the Mississippi River from their lands. Those subjected to removal would be moved “beyond the white settlements” to distant reservations in the West, known at the time as “Indian Territory.” It was a form of segregation.
In 1832, the Supreme Court struck down Georgia laws aimed at depriving the Cherokee people of their rights and property in Worchester v. Georgia. The court affirmed a degree of Native political sovereignty and annulled state jurisdiction over Native lands. It was the final case of the so-called Marshall trilogy, named for Chief Justice John Marshall – the author of the majority decisions – and established major precedents of federal Indian law.
The immediate effect of the decision was to grant protections to the Cherokee Nation, and by extension to other tribes. It could have prevented forced removals, but Jackson was reportedly indignant at the result. According to the famed journalist Horace Greeley, Jackson was said to have responded, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”
Whether Jackson spoke those words has been contested by historians ever since. But his strong support for removal policy and subsequent refusal to enforce the court’s decision made his position clear. The response was a stern rebuke of the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, the doctrine of the separation of powers, the rule of law and ultimately the Constitution.
The result was the Trail of Tears, in which Cherokee and other Native peoples of the Southeast were forced at gunpoint to march 1,200 miles to “Indian territory.” Thousands of Cherokee died during the passage, while many who survived the trek lost their homes and most of their property. Ironically, much of the land on which the Cherokee and other removed tribes were settled was opened to homesteading and became Oklahoma some 60 years later.
Yet, the violent manner by which removal was carried out had been ruled illegal and unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Worchester case.
New assault on native rights?
The new administration is showing similar malice toward the legal status and rights of Native peoples secured in American law. For example, Trump recently lifted President Obama’s injunction halting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The eviction of pipeline opponents from Sacred Stone Camp, led by the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, under threats of arrest has led to renewed uncertainty about Native rights.
Statements by Trump’s advisers and government officials calling for the privatization of Native lands guaranteed by treaties to seize natural resources have only heightened these concerns.
This rhetoric echos policies that oppressed Native people in the past. These include allotment, extending from 1887 to the 1930s, which eliminated communal ownership and led to the taking of millions of acres of Native land. This was followed by termination and relocation of the 1950s, aimed at eliminating the legal status of Native people while sending individuals from reservations to urban areas, further depriving Native peoples of their lands, liberty and culture.
Native treaties are unequivocally assured in Article 6, the Supremacy Clause, of the U.S. Constitution. It states: “all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land…”
Tribal leaders negotiated treaties in good faith to reserve what amounts to a fraction of their original lands, with all attendant rights. Privatizing tribal lands would be a violation of these treaties.
The casual rejection of these covenants heighten the insecurity among Native people evoked by Trump. His esteem for Jackson and their shared attitudes toward their legal rights and status should give us pause. That journalists and historians continue to offer positive views of Jackson’s presidency in light of this legacy underscores how the suffering of Native people continues to be ignored.