Pandemic triggered ‘trying times’ for CN lawmakers in 2020
Cherokee Nation tribal councilors and other leaders virtually attend an April 27 Rules Committee meeting. Tribal lawmakers had to adapt how they govern in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. COURTESY
TAHLEQUAH – When 2020 began, the Cherokee Nation’s tribal councilors gathered to conduct business as usual, but once COVID-19 was officially deemed a pandemic, safety became priority No. 1.
“It’s really been trying times to have meetings,” Tribal Council Speaker Joe Byrd said. “For the first month (March), I chose not to have a meeting and we haven’t been back in our regular Council meeting since then. We’re just meeting in our committee rooms. Of course, it’s more adapted to where we can be distanced. It has been difficult. We just haven’t been able to look each other in the eye when some of these decisions are being made.”
When councilors resumed gathering – wearing masks, distanced and eventually separated by Plexiglas – they passed a legislative act to allow remote attendance due to “events of extraordinary circumstances beyond the control of the Tribal Council,” and also temporarily reduced the number of committee meetings.
“We did the best we could with our virtual meetings,” Byrd said. “But you don’t get the full impact when you’re sitting there looking at one another and you see the emotions of our elected officials and we’re debating issues on funding and budget and housing and health and scholarships. You just don’t get the full impact when you see somebody on a screen.”
In 2020, there were 11 routine Tribal Council meetings, 64 committee meetings and four special-called meetings, a total of 20 fewer than in 2019.
Dist. 6 Tribal Councilor Daryl Legg missed 12 committee meetings and two Tribal Council meetings, the most of any councilor. His absences were recorded in June and December. Legg said he missed the summer day’s worth of meetings to attend his wife’s socially-distanced graduation ceremony at nursing school.
“That was a huge achievement,” he said. “That only happens once in a lifetime. She supported me throughout my campaign. She helped me so much and I’m so proud of her. It was a huge deal for her.”
In December, Legg was “down for two weeks” with COVID-19, he said.
“You’re so fatigued and disoriented. You feel disconnected from reality. I could have sat there and I probably couldn’t have even understood what anyone was saying. It was bad,” he said.
Legg was “scared to death” to initially learn he was infected.
“When they told me I was positive, I was sitting there in my truck and I didn’t know, do I go inside my house? What do I do now? Am I going to die? Really and truly those were real feelings,” he said. “Am I going to be the one on a respirator?”
Legg says he is faring well following quarantine, which ended Dec. 20.
Dist. 5 Tribal Councilor E.O. Smith, who carried an unblemished record since elected in 2017, missed a string of meetings due to what he described as a severe bout with COVID-19 in November.
“I’d like to died,” he said. “I was in intensive care for nine days. It didn’t hit me like most people, no fever, diarrhea, loss of taste. All I had was just immense body ache, and it just had me. I always thought my pain tolerance was good. But that was the roughest thing I’ve ever had. Luckily I got to come home.”
Smith’s hospitalization caused him to miss seven committee meetings along with November’s Tribal Council meeting. It was the first time he’s missed a meeting as an officeholder.
“I like to go to those meetings,” he said. “I try to make as many as I can because I actually enjoy that stuff.”
Smith, who represents western Sequoyah County and a portion of eastern Muskogee County, said that like Legg, he has since recovered.
“I’ve been out doing the food drives,” he said. “I’ve been on six of them since. I’m just so lucky, so blessed. I feel good.”
Byrd was one of several councilors who, despite the pandemic, scored perfect attendance during 2020’s committee and Tribal Council meetings. In fact, the former principal chief has attended every monthly Tribal Council meeting since returning to office in 2011.
“So I’m going on 10 years in a row,” Byrd said. “I just feel like we need to be there; we take an oath. Our population has grown from back in ’87 around 75,000 and now we’re up to almost 370,000. Even though we’re doing better off financially, there’s more people with needs. It’s a full-time job.”
Other councilors who made every 2020 meeting – either in person or virtually – were Wes Nofire (Dist. 3), Mike Dobbins (Dist. 4), Shawn Crittenden (Dist. 8), Mike Shambaugh (Dist. 9), Victoria Vazquez (Dist. 11), Dora Patzkowski (Dist. 12), Joe Deere (Dist. 13), Keith Austin (Dist. 14), Janees Taylor (Dist. 15) and Mary Baker Shaw (At-Large).
Councilors Canaan Duncan (Dist. 7) and Harley Buzzard (Dist. 10) missed one committee meeting each, while Julia Coates (At-Large) missed two. Rex Jordan (Dist. 1) missed seven committee meetings due to health reasons, the majority of which were in June, but attended all Tribal Councils.
Coates, who lives in California, attended meetings virtually on a dozen dates, the highest tally of any councilor. Others who attended virtually on at least one occasion were Duncan, Crittenden, Vazquez, Taylor, Jordan, Deere and Baker Shaw.
“We’re always trying to enforce health first, wearing a mask, distancing and doing all of that,” Byrd said. “I think the Cherokees should be commended for taking the lead, even versus the state. We have really jumped out there and said this is how we’re going to do it, and we didn’t back off from it. I think when we look back, we made the right decision.”