The forum featured six of the eight candidates running for one of two at large seats on the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council. At-large members of that body represent citizens living outside the tribe’s historic boundaries across 14 counties in northeastern Oklahoma. The Tribal Council is composed of 17 elected councilors.
Eight candidates are registered for the at-large race on the Cherokee Nation’s June 5 ballot:
- Wallace Ryan Craig
- Mary-Charlotte Grayson
- Kyle B. Haskins
- Shawna Johnson
- John Kidwell
- Robin Mayes
- Matthew Benjamin Scraper
- Marilyn Vann
Craig and Johnson did not attend the forum.
Views vary on biggest problem facing nation
Candidates were asked what they see as the most pressing problem facing the Cherokee Nation today. Answers varied from inequality among citizens to the belief by some that tribal government isn’t working to make their lives better.
Kyle Haskins said one of the biggest problems is the transfer of authority from the Tribal Council to the chief’s office.
“Defending our sovereignty against attack is expensive, but exercising our sovereignty is incredibly expensive,” he said. “We need to exercise good judgment in making those determinations. We have sales tax issues, income tax issues and ad valorem tax issues. We still have ongoing issues with regard to tribal gaming. One of the biggest issues that I’ve seen that has interested me the most is that it seems like we have a delegation of authority that has occurred by our tribal council members referring it over to the chief’s office. That’s something our tribal council has got to step up and exercise.”
Marilyn Vann said many Cherokees lack faith in their own tribal government.
“There is a sense from so many Cherokees that the government, the leadership, don’t care about them,” she said. “Or if they participate in voting or running for office, nothing is going to change. I think it’s up to the elected officials to try and change those feelings.”
Robin Mayes said the structure of tribal government is problematic.
“There are a lot of issues, but which one is the most critical,” he said. “To me, it’s the same one that I’ve been concerned about for the last 30 years. It’s the issue that really got me started in my Cherokee activism. I believe the most critical issue is the structure of the Cherokee government. You need to have a foundation that sits on bedrock. You need to have walls in alignment, in continuity, where they match up where one is built on top of the other. I feel what’s wrong is that we don’t really have that structural integrity.”
John Kidwell said access to benefits is critical.
“I truly believe that at-large citizens must be able to see and feel real change toward equality,” he said. “Equality of benefit. Equality of resources. Equality of scholarships. And under that falls everything else. Mental health, it’s critical that at-large people have access to mental health programs. But when people talk about what’s critical for at-large, we need to see that the Cherokee Nation treats us the same as anyone else.”
Matthew Scraper echoed those concerns. He said access to services is an ongoing issue.
“I believe the most critical question is what’s most important to our at-large citizens, and I believe that is access to tribal services,” he said. “I believe that getting access to tribal services for at-large Cherokee citizens is critical. As one who represents our at-large, citizens I think it is very possible to increase access to tribal services. We’re grossly misrepresented on the council.”
Mary-Charlotte Grayson said health care remains the most important issue facing the tribe.
“From the citizens I’ve spoken with, health care is a repeated thing,” she said. “We need to do something about at-large citizens and our health care. I believe we need to start including at-large citizens in our health care plans.”
Communication is critical
Candidates were also asked how they would communicate with the people they represent. At-large Cherokee citizens are scattered around the country, and the world, making that task especially challenging.
Kidwell said technology can solve many of those problems, but not all of them.
“Technology is great,” he said. “I’m on YouTube. I’m on Instagram. But I will tell you who gets left out of all that, and that is the 85-year-old elder who lives in San Antonio, Texas. That’s the person that can’t make that jump, and that’s the people we still need to get to. I’m not saying that is the fix-all, but people are dying for information. They’re disconnected, and they want more.”
Scraper said he would communicate by whatever means necessary.
“If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, or on TikTok — many of you have messaged me in those venues or sent an email or made a phone call — I will respond,” he said. “When you call, I will pick up the phone. When you send me an email, I will respond. Wherever you are, I will take steps to make sure you are connected to me so I can be aware of what’s important to you.”
Grayson said she thinks candidates sometimes view citizens too much as voters.
“When we look at how we talk to the citizens and what line of communication we’re going to have — I’ve said this before and I really believe this — we focus too much on the citizens as voters,” she said. “But the citizen is so much larger than that. So when we talk about a line of communication, I believe personally that setting up those situations is critical. I’m talking about devoting more funding to the COCA meetings and other functions. Doing those quarterly rather than once a year.”
Mayes said those in elected office need to be made aware they represent the entire tribe, not just those in their district.
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“In effect, there seems to be classes of Cherokee citizens” he said. “There’s a reason why this is happening. It’s not because it’s what anyone wants. But when you start to fix a problem with a patch or Band-Aid on it, I think that’s what’s happening. If you’re drawing this line in the sand, it is divisive. I think what we need to concentrate on is to communicate to the people already in elected office and say you represent every Cherokee, not just the ones in your district. That, to me, is a point of concern in that communication.”
Haskins said availability is the key to communication.
“It’s the same thing with telemedicine,” he said. “That has been wonderful. We’ve had the ability to interact with doctors without even having to leave our house. We’ve learned a lot. The thing that has to come up first when it comes to people who are representing you is availability. They have to answer their phone and return calls. They have to be able to respond to texts. They also have to be able to travel. You have to be available, and step out and do the things that are necessary.”
Vann said she would make use of existing tools to foster good communication with those she would represent.
“It’s very difficult for at-large council people to reach out to people,” she said. “Monthly town halls using Zoom or other platforms are important. As an at-large councilperson, I would continue to do as other at-large representatives have done, and that includes going out to community meetings in Texas or California. I want to help start new communities. There are a lot of places that have a fair number of Cherokee citizens, but they’ve never had a council person reach out to them.”