Published on September 10, 2013 by Amy
Chadwick “Corntassel” Smith is the former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. He was first elected in 1999. Smith was re-elected to a second term as Chief in 2003 and a third term in June 2007 with 59% of the vote. He was defeated in his attempt to get elected to a fourth term in office by Bill John Baker 54% to 46% in the 2011 election. Prior to being elected Principal Chief, he worked as a lawyer for the tribe and privately.
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Chad Smith was born in Pontiac, Michigan, where his father had gone for work. He grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. As a boy, Smith achieved the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts in Nashville.
He grew up with stories of his Cherokee ancestors. He is the great-grandson of Redbird Smith, a Cherokee Nation Senator and a traditionalist who founded the Nighthawk Keetoowah Society, a religious, cultural, and political organization dedicated to reviving the Cherokee way of life. He fought the allotment policy, under which the United States government took more than 7,000,000 acres (28,000 km²) of land from the Cherokee. Rachel Quinton, Chad Smith’s grandmother, was a lifelong advocate for the Cherokee people and the treasurer for the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.
Smith earned a Bachelors of Arts in Education from the University of Georgia in 1973, a Masters of Business Administration degree in Public Administration from the University of Wisconsin in 1975, and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Tulsa law school in 1980.
Prior to his service as Principal Chief, Smith taught Indian law at Northeastern State University, Rogers State University, and for a semester at Dartmouth College while he was a visiting fellow.
From 1979 to 1980, Smith served a consultant in Indian Law and Tribal Management to the Cherokee Nation’s Tribal Operations. He then served as Assistant District Attorney in Creek County, Oklahoma. On two separate occasions, Smith served as the Estate Tax Attorney of the United States Department of Treasury, from 1980 to 1982 and from 1987 to 1989.
From 1989 to 1995 and from 1997 to 1999, he operated a private law practice out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, representing clients in civil rights litigation and appeals, criminal defense, and general civil litigation, with a focus on Indian law. Smith served as an Assistant Public Defender and served as counsel to economically deprived defendants in the District Court of Tulsa County.
Smith completed his third 4-year term as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 2011. The Principal Chief is the head of the executive branch of the tribal government. The position is responsible for the execution of the laws of the Cherokee Nation, establishment of tribal policy, and delegation of authority for the day-to-day operations of the tribe. Before his election, Smith served under two Cherokee Nation chiefs as Director of Tribal Planning, Legal Historian, Attorney, Cherokee Nation Prosecutor, Director of Justice and adviser to the tribal tax commission.
Smith was elected Principal Chief on July 24, 1999, defeating the incumbent Principal Chief Joe Byrd in a runoff election. Byrd’s first term was marked with tension and constitutional crisis issues. Smith received 7,204 votes (56.48%) to Byrd’s 5,552 votes (43.52%). During his first term, Hastings Shade, a Cherokee traditionalist, language teacher, artist, and author, served as deputy chief.
Smith was re-elected to subsequent terms in 2003 and 2007, with Joe Grayson as deputy chief, who is a bilingual, full-blood community organizer and military veteran.
Smith ran for a fourth term in 2011. His running mate was Chris Soap, son of Charlie Soap, husband of the late Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller. He was challenged by Bill John Baker, who supported inclusion of descendants of freedmen in the tribe. The election was held on June 25, 2011. Both candidates have twice been declared the winner, because voting was so close. Because the results could not be determined with mathematical certainty, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ordered a second vote for Sept. 24, 2011. As the Cherokee Nation constitution does not allow elected officials to remain in office past Inauguration Day, Smith left office on Aug. 14, 2011. S. Joe Crittenden was sworn in as deputy chief, and elevated to acting principal chief in accordance with the constitutional chain of succession.
During his tenure as principal chief, Smith focused on three initiatives: economic self-reliance for the tribe, Cherokee language and cultural revitalization, and community development in Northeastern Oklahoma. Language immersion programs for Cherokee children and youth have been established. Smith popularized the term gadugi, which in Cherokee refers to the spontaneous work crews communities formed as needs arose. It has come to mean coming together to work for the good of all Cherokee.
The modern Cherokee Nation has had steady economic growth. During Smith’s tenure, agricultural growth, and business, corporate, real estate expansion occurred. Some has been funded by revenues from numerous casino operations. The Cherokee Nation controls Cherokee Nation Entertainment, a gaming and hospitality company with several thousand employees in Eastern Oklahoma, as well as Cherokee Nation Industries, a defense contractor. .
Since 1992 the Cherokee Nation has served as the lead tribe for the Inter-Tribal Environmental Council (ITEC). The mission of ITEC is to protect the health of Native Americans, their natural resources, and their environment as it relates to air, land, and water. To accomplish this mission, ITEC provides technical support, training and environmental services in a variety of environmental disciplines. There are 39 ITEC member tribes in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.
Chad Smith, 2007
Smith’s administration is not without controversy. The Cherokee Nation admitted to hiring the lobbyist Jack Abramoff after the Smith administration vehemently denied it. Records show that CNE paid Abramoff a total of $120,000.
In 2006, Smith was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the FBI due to his dealings with GEG through Cherokee Nation Enterprises. Allegations included the misuse of federal loan monies, and backdating of loan documents.
Smith has supported the exclusion of descendants of Cherokee Freedmen as citizens from the Cherokee Nation, despite their having been part of the Nation for 200 years. In 2006, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court ruled that descendants of Freedmen, as well as of Intermarried Whites listed on the Dawes Rolls (where both groups were listed in separate categories), should be allowed to enroll in the Cherokee Nation. Jodie Fishinghawk and former Deputy Chief John Ketcher petitioned the government for a special election to determine whether or not to include the Freedman. The federal government intervened and the Freedman are currently part of the tribe.
Smith appealed this injunction, citing sovereign immunity. The Appeals Court ruled that the Cherokee Nation could not be sued, but that officers of the Cherokee Nation, including Smith, could be sued for working outside the boundaries of their office by violating the treaty of 1866, and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The case was in Federal District Court as of July 2008.
Smith filed a similar case in federal court in Denver against individual Freedmen descendants in March 2009. The Freedmen’s attorney accused Smith of “venue shopping” while the Vann court case is still ongoing, as another similar case was filed in Cherokee Nation court.
Smith is married to Bobbie Gail Scott Smith, a full-blooded Cherokee from the Rocky Mountain community of Adair County, Oklahoma. The Smiths have three children together.
Chad Smith also has three children from another relationship, which has been controversial. In a 2007 interview with the Muscogee Phoenix, Smith admitted his second relationship and said that he loved all his children and supported them financially. Smith avoided charges of bigamy because he is legally married to only one woman.