TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) -- Elaine Philemonof enjoys the silence.
The gift shop worker said she hasn't heard much coming from the
Cherokee Nation's tribal office just a few blocks away. Not one
conspiracy or confrontation. No arrests or accusations.
But, then again, it's only been two weeks with a new chief.
"It's been quiet so far," she said. "I guess my vote mattered
The first phase of transition into office has ended for Chief
Chad Smith, just one month since he was elected to lead the
nation's second-largest tribe.
He arrived when the legislative council had halted, the law
enforcement was shut down and how much money the tribe had was
Thirty days post-Smith, the council has met, action has been
taken to regain tribal law enforcement and records show that the
tribe is in debt about $2 to $6 million and not $18 million, which
Smith estimated in his campaign against former Chief Joe Byrd.
"It's work -- long, hard work," Smith said. "But, our goal is
to keep an eye on the vision."
Perry and Kathy Vanbuskirk's vision is for the Cherokee people
to become a tribe again.
"It's been all politics, no culture," said Perry Vanbuskirk,
who is a tribal member. "People knew each other for which
political side they supported. Like so many others, our heritage
has gotten away."
Working at the Cherokee Heritage Center, Vanbuskirk said the
past two years of political turmoil is still "like a hound that
keeps snipping at the back of your legs."
"We are just waiting -- waiting to see if it will change," he
The fighting began in 1997 with allegations of misspending in
Byrd's office. Warrants were issued to search the chief's office,
but Byrd fired the marshals. Tribal leaders then took sides,
bringing ouster attempts and boycotts that kept the tribe's
legislative body from meeting and brought the federal government to
take over law enforcement.
Smith, a 48-year-old lawyer, still faces county charges of
inciting a riot and assaulting a police officer for trying to stop
Byrd from closing the tribe's courthouse.
Now as chief, Smith said his top priority is writing the tribe's
first fiscal budget in two years. The tribe has been allocating
money on a continuing resolution since fiscal year 1997, which has
frozen funds to that year's allowances.
A fiscal year 2000 budget lets the tribe adjust its roughly $150
million budget to include increases in government funds and other
programs. The hard part has been trying to determine how much money
the tribe has and needs, said Julian Fite, acting Cherokee general
"We have found very lax and confused policies of who has had
the authority to enter into contracts," he said. "Everyone was
doing their own thing. We anticipate large shortages of money."
Fite said former Chief Joe Byrd's administration did not clear
construction projects with the finance office, including a $1.5
million for a new emergency services building. As a result, Smith's
administration is working on a policy that requires department
heads to clear "significant amounts of money" through the finance
Kathy Harmon said the last two years have been especially hard
because Byrd is a full-blooded Cherokee. Smith is a half-blood.
"I don't believe you are a better leader because of your blood,
but it was so disappointing with Byrd," she said at a Cherokee
museum. It helps her that Deputy Chief Hastings Shade is
Heading into the second transitional phase, Smith said his goal
of the 60-day phase is to fill administrative jobs including
positions in education, community development and operations.
The third and final phase is 120 days to look at function
details of the tribe. Smith said the transition should be complete
in 18 months
"In 50 years from now, I don't care if they remember my name. I
want them to remember we had a dynamic team.," Smith said.
Fite said it all will take time.
"The national reputation of the Cherokee Nation has been
tarnished. It used to be a model of tribal self government for the
country," he said. "We are working to make the Nation a model
again, of coming out of this situation striving."