TAHLEQUAH -- During the new year's first Tribal Council meeting, Cherokee Nation lawmakers unanimously passed the Ketcher-Deason Act of 2020 to provide up to $5,000 in special benefits for families of CN employees who have died from COVID-19.

"I appreciate my partner there, (Tribal Councilor) Canaan Duncan, for coming up with this," Tribal Councilor Shawn Crittenden said, "and I appreciate everyone here for passing that."

Under the act passed Jan. 11, families of the deceased will be offered up to $5,000 worth of burial assistance, a $5,000 education scholarship or a $5,000 donation to a nonprofit organization of the family's choosing.

Scholarships will be available to CN citizens through the Cherokee Nation Foundation. Families that opt for donations may choose nonprofit or governmental medical research organizations. Payments for burial assistance will be made directly to the funeral service provider, the act states.

According to the CN, the employee's death must have resulted from COVID-19 and "shall be verified through medical records supplied by the family."

The legislation is named in honor of Karen Ketcher and Faye Deason, the first two CN employees who died from COVID-19 in 2020.

Ketcher, 70, of Stilwell, was director of Self-Governance.

"Karen Ketcher dedicated her life to working in and for Indian Country for over 40 years," the act states. "Karen's most influential positions included regional director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Eastern Oklahoma Region, and the executive director of Self Governance for Cherokee Nation. Karen was well respected by all who knew her both professionally and personally."

Deason, 63, also from Stilwell, was a 25-year CN employee who worked at the Wilma P. Mankiller Health Center in Stilwell.

"(Deason) was born and raised in Stilwell and was a first-language Cherokee speaker," the act states. "Faye Deason dedicated her life to serving her community and her tribe."

As of Jan. 11, 67 patients within CN Health Services had died from COVID-19, according to the tribe.

In other business, the Council passed a resolution supporting President-elect Joe Biden's nomination of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior. Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo citizen, would be the first Native American to lead the agency.

"A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior," Haaland said via social media in December. "Growing up in my mother's Pueblo household made me fierce. I'll be fierce for all of us, our planet and all of our protected land."

The Tribal Council meeting was immediately preceded by the Community Services Committee meeting, which was devoted almost entirely to the pre-holiday rumors of a "secret fund" being used by councilors, or that tribal COVID relief funds were being misused.

"We were all in this meeting months ago when (former Human Services Director Marsha Lamb) said to send (those in need) to (Human Services), even if you don't think they will fit into a specific pocket," Councilor Janees Taylor said. "If somebody was laid off for two weeks and they didn't have any income, they might not need food. Maybe they do need tires. We have no control over what they spent their money on. It wasn't a tires or refrigerator program. It was a COVID-related program and each constituent used it for the needs that they had."

Chief of Staff Todd Enlow fielded questions regarding the program's use, and how it would be used in the future. He said the application for the Human Services COVID relief program will be available online beginning Jan. 25.

"Now that we have this extension, what we would like to do and what we've been working on is retooling this program, taking it out of the paper-based application, making it more accessible to our citizens," Enlow said. "There were emails from employees at different establishments that burst out instructions on how to go get all this free stuff. It was never meant to be a program like that. It was meant to meet the needs of those who suffered the greatest."

Senior Reporter D. Sean Rowley contributed to this report.