Cherokee Nation Chief Candidates Hold First Public Debate Outside of Oklahoma

For the first time in Cherokee history, public debates with the principal chief candidates of the Cherokee Nation were held outside of Oklahoma, in Pomona College’s Little Bridges Auditorium on March 7. 

The Cherokee Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the
U.S., has an estimated 320,000 tribal citizens, with 15,000 residing in California, according to the Los Angeles Cherokees webpage. The Cherokee government
has a federally recognized sovereign status, with a constitution and executive,
judicial and legislative branches.

The Cherokee At-Large Leadership Network (CALL Net), an independent 501c3
organization, hosted a debate series to provide Cherokees across the nation the
opportunity to hear the positions of the principal chief candidates on a
variety of issues. Approximately 50 members of the Cherokee nation
and a handful of 5C students gathered in at Pomona to attend the debate.

The principal chief candidates were Charlie Soap and Chad Smith, while the deputy chief candidates were Lee Keener and Julia Coates.

Coates and Smith announced they were running mates; Keener and Soap did not indicate any affiliation with the other. There were
additional candidates running for both offices that could not make it to the
debate series. 

Rory Taylor  PO ’15 is the director of the IndigeNATION Scholars Program at the Claremont Colleges, which pairs about 20 Claremont student mentors with 70-80 high school students at three local Native American high schools. As he introduced the event, Taylor said, “Just
last week, the IndigeNATION Program was honored in Washington DC as a 2015
Champion for Change.” 

Kermit Rodriguez PO ’18 and Itzel Delgado Gonzales CM ’16 were part of the handful of 5C students who attended the debates.

“It’s really important to me to hear what the candidates have to say because these are the people who will be making the big decisions in the Cherokee Nation,” Rodriguez said. 

Gonzalez also emphasized the importance of listening to these central debates. 

“I encourage everyone who is a Cherokee citizen, and even those of other tribes, to take advantage of the opportunity we have to hear these debates, even only online,” Gonzales added.

The debate consisted of an opening statement from each candidate,
six questions (not accounting for rebuttals) and closing statements. 

Smith was introduced as having served as the director of justice
and tribal prosecutor, under the former Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller. In
addition, he served as principal chief from 1999 to 2011.

Soap served in the U.S. Navy from 1965 to 1969 and was also a pow
wow dancer. He also served as a
community service group leader and as the director of the Cherokee Nation
Community Development Department. He was also the husband of former
Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller.

Keener is a member of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council and
instructs a Cherokee Nation history course. He has helped implement a
scholarship program for Cherokee students attending Rogers State University and
has organized many cultural and community events. 

Coates is as an advisor to the Cherokee Nation Community Association
board and the Cherokee Nation Foundation board, and has helped 24 at-large
satellite communities be established and officially recognized within the

The first question asked the candidates to consider how they
would foster economic development outside of tribal boundaries.

In his answer, Smith discussed the need for a clear business strategy and new approach to job creation. 

“First things first, you need a sound
business strategy,” Smith said. “The main reasons that people choose to leave Oklahoma are to
find work. We need to create jobs where they are needed, develop new markets and train people.”

Soap addressed the lack of jobs available to people in rural areas, calling for a greater focus on planning. 

most of what I hear, there are no jobs available in rural areas, and at-large
groups need jobs too,” he said. “We need better planning and better locations for people
to work in.” 

One of the questions directed at the deputy chief candidates
focused on how they plan to help preserve the native language.

“Technology is extremely useful,” Keener said. “The
combination of computers and classes is a good idea, and we can send teachers
for immersion classes for a one-on-one experience.” 

Coates argued that a community of native speakers is essential to perpetuating, rather than preserving, the Cherokee language. 

 “I prefer to use the
term language perpetuation rather than preservation,” he said. “There’s
a program at Northeastern University which feeds into an immersion school to
learn the language. We definitely need a community of speakers to interact
with, because even if you know the language, it is difficult to continue
without that support.”

The candidates answered further questions about issues such as upholding sovereignty in intertribal conflicts, increasing the registration of
citizens and how they will ensure the hiring of tribal business affairs
position in an impartial, merit-based manner. 

The entirety of the debate is
posted on YouTube, entitled, “Principal Chief debates for the
upcoming 2015 Cherokee Nation election” under the account “Cherokee

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