TAHLEQUAH – After serving a partial term and two full terms on the Tribal Council, Dist. 2 Councilor Joe Byrd will soon term out of his seat.
His replacement is not yet decided. Bobby Stover and Candessa Tehee are vying for the Council spot in a July 24 runoff. And Byrd has not made any public statement concerning his plans after leaving office.
Byrd has served three terms on the Tribal Council, and served a four-year term as principal chief. In 2015, he assumed the role of Council speaker, succeeding former Council Speaker and current Secretary of State Tina Glory Jordan.
When he was returned by Dist. 2 voters for a second term, Byrd was also returned as speaker with a 15-2 vote of the Council.
“I am humbled by the confidence my fellow councilors place in me by voting for me to serve a second term as speaker of the Tribal Council,” Byrd said at the time. “I believe we are on a positive trajectory in accomplishing great things for our people and look forward to working diligently to continue on that path.”
Among the causes Byrd put his full support behind was preventing violence against women. He was instrumental in the passage of the 2018 Violence Against Women Act, which updated language and increased penalties in the Cherokee Nation’s legal code. It added language allowing the possibility of restitution as a penalty and expanded its scope to include dating relationships, and also widened the jurisdiction of the CN courts.
As important as that work was, Byrd may be best remembered for his dedication to language preservation. When elected principal chief in 1995, he was the first bilingual person to hold the office in two centuries.
But it was during his most recent Tribal Council term that CN legislators approved the $16 million Durbin Feeling Cherokee Language Preservation Act in 2019.
In May, ground was broken on the $5 million Durbin Feeling Language Center, part of the Feeling Preservation Act. It will remodel, expand and transform the former tribal casino. When completed, the center will combine all the tribe’s language-related efforts at one facility, including the Cherokee Immersion School, Master-Apprentice Language Program and the tribe’s translation team.
“Durbin Feeling did as much for our people than anybody I can remember,” Byrd said at the groundbreaking. “The center cannot be more appropriately named than Durbin.”
Byrd often spoke highly of Feeling, who died in 2020. Byrd and Feeling were allies determined to preserve a language that has seen a number of its speakers taken during the COVID pandemic.
“I can say without a doubt that Durbin Feeling laid the groundwork for this generation’s preservation of the Cherokee language,” Byrd said. “I believe because of his efforts and the work of so many of our first-language Cherokee speakers, including those here in the Cherokee Nation and our brothers and sisters from the United Keetoowah Band and the Eastern Band of Cherokees, that we're going to save our Cherokee language. The Council of the Cherokee Nation has always been a supporter of every effort to preserve the Cherokee language, and we all look forward to seeing our language carried on to the next generation.”
Byrd, 67, is a full-blood Cherokee born and raised in Belfonte/Nicut near Muldrow. He served two terms on the Oklahoma Native Culture Board after his appointment by former Gov. Frank Keating. He also received an appointment to the Planning Committee of the National Indian Policy Center in Washington, D.C.