TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Citizens of the Cherokee Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the U.S., are set to decide whether Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. should lead the tribe for another four years as it enters a golden era after courts recognized its sprawling reservation and with an operating budget of more than $3 billion.
Hoskin, a 48-year-old attorney whose name is now intertwined with the fight for tribal sovereignty, is among four candidates seeking the tribe’s top position, similar to that of a state’s governor. The nonpartisan election for chief, deputy chief and eight positions on the tribe’s 17-member council are scheduled to be held Saturday, with many Cherokee citizens from across the country expected to submit absentee ballots.
Challengers include David Cornsilk, a retired genealogist and educator; Wes Nofire, an ex-boxer and supporter of former President Donald Trump who serves on the tribal council; and Cara Cowen Watts, an engineer and former Cherokee Nation tribal councilor. Election results could take days to tabulate, and a runoff election will be held if no candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote.
By any measure, the last four years have been remarkable for the Cherokee Nation based in Tahlequah, Okla., whose population has risen to more than 450,000 members. It is one of 39 federally recognized tribes with headquarters in a state once known as Indian Territory, where Indigenous people were forced to relocate in the 1800s as European settlers expanded westward.
The tribe’s annual budget has tripled to more than $3 billion with the help of a massive infusion of federal funding through COVID-19 relief, the American Rescue Plan funding and the federal infrastructure bill.
The tribe also negotiated its own $75 million settlement with manufacturers of opioids, which led to addiction and deaths among tribal members and other U.S. citizens. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Nation’s reservation, which spans nearly 7,000 square miles in northeast Oklahoma, in a landmark decision on tribal sovereignty, the concept giving tribes the right to govern their people and control their economies.
The Cherokee Nation’s effort to seat a delegate in the U.S. Congress also has picked up steam.
Meanwhile, Hoskin, a former Cherokee Nation tribal councilor and secretary of state, saw his statewide profile rise when he joined other tribal leaders across the state in a feud with Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, himself a Cherokee citizen, over the compacts with the state giving tribes the exclusive right to casino gambling. The tribes also have compacts, which are formal agreements between tribes and the state, over revenue items including the sale of cigarettes, motor fuel and vehicle tags.
A judge ultimately sided with the tribes, but their conflict with the governor grew more combative as Stitt fiercely opposed the expansion of tribal sovereignty that ultimately came in the form of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark McGirt decision.
Since then, Hoskin and Stitt have continued to engage in increasingly contentious bickering that some say has become petty.
Hoskin at one point ordered Oklahoma flags to be removed from tribal properties, a decision he later rescinded. Stitt, meanwhile, has vetoed several bills supported by tribes, including one that would allow students to wear tribal regalia at high school graduations, although his veto was later overridden by the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Although it’s not uncommon for Oklahoma governors and tribes to have disagreements and even battles in court, the relationship between Stitt and many of the state’s most powerful tribes has grown particularly combative.
While Stitt is officially a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, archived tribal documents from the early 1900s show the tribe sought to remove one of Stitt’s ancestors, Francis M. Dawson, from the list of tribal citizens, alleging that he bribed a commission clerk to place him and his family in the register. The tribe’s decision to remove Dawson and his family ultimately was overruled by the federal government. Stitt recently acknowledged he has never voted in a tribal election and wasn’t even certain if he was authorized to do so.
When asked if he planned to endorse anyone in the chief’s race, Stitt made clear he is no fan of Hoskin.
“I’m not going to be endorsing him,” Stitt said. “He stood up and endorsed my opponent, so we’ll see.”
In a rare decision to wade deeply into state politics, Hoskin and other leaders of the Five Tribes of Oklahoma — also including the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole tribes — endorsed Stitt’s opponent, Democrat Joy Hofmeister, who ultimately lost to Stitt by nearly 15 percentage points.
Explaining why he deserves another four-year term, Hoskin focused on his efforts to diversify the tribe’s economy beyond casino operations and preserve the Cherokee language. He also has helped invest a massive infusion of federal money into infrastructure projects including a six-story, 127-bed, $400 million hospital in the tribe’s capital city; wellness centers for tribal citizens; and a drug-and-alcohol treatment facility built with the tribe’s share of settlement funds from opioid manufacturers.
“That to me seems like not only an argument for our reelection, but something that long down the road, years and decades from now, will be of great benefit to the Cherokee people,” Hoskin said.
Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe, which has no formal reservation and is not associated with the Cherokee Nation, said he doesn’t want to wade into another tribe’s politics, but it’s hard not to take notice of the job Hoskin has done.
“Often times, tribal leaders rush from one brush fire to another,” Barnes said. “In spite of all those brush fires, in spite of a global pandemic, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin has maintained a coherent vision for what he sees for his nation.”
Still, Hoskin clearly has critics. Cornsilk, one of his opponents, criticized Hoskin’s massive investment in infrastructure projects that Cornsilk said will be difficult to staff and maintain once the federal COVID-19 relief and infrastructure funding goes away. He claimed Hoskin runs the tribe like a dictatorship, in part by using his influence to stack the tribe’s council with allies who quash dissent.
“This mafia has been in office since 2011. They’ve been in there long enough that they’ve filled every seat on our tribal court. They’ve filled every seat on the election commission,” Cornsilk said. “He controls everything.”
While Cornsilk acknowledged that Hoskin is an impressive public speaker who has raised his own political profile, he said that has come at the expense of the Cherokee people.
“He doesn’t have a lot of support in the five major Cherokee populated counties,” Cornsilk said, “but the further you get away from Tahlequah, the less people know, the less connected they are, the more likely they are to believe the hype that comes out of his office.”