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Sneed and Hicks compete for Principal Chief of Eastern Band of Cherokee

Two side by side headshots of Richard Sneed and Michell Hicks
Official photos from Facebook profiles of respective candidates
Richard Sneed (L) and Michell Hicks (R) are vying for the top job with the Eastern Band Of Cherokee

When the 16,000 Eastern Band of Cherokee members head to the polls on Thursday, two familiar names will appear at the top of the ballot: incumbent Richard Sneed and former chief Michell Hicks. The two candidates for principal chief, the executive officer position in the tribe’s government, have ambitious goals for the 56,000-acre Qualla Boundary that stretches across five counties.

As the only federally recognized tribe in the state, the tribe is uniquely situated to generate revenue from their ownership of two casinos- one in Cherokee and one in Murphy. The Harrah’s casinos bring in more than $2 billion annually according to the Smoky Mountain News. This funds the tribe as well as provides disbursements to tribal members.

The budget of the tribe was a key aspect of a recent debate between the candidates held by the tribal newspaper the Cherokee One Feather.

Sneed maintained he made good business deals for the tribe while Hicks said the tribe’s money is over extended.

Throughout his tenure, Sneed advocated for the diversification of the tribe’s finances by investing in other industries and striking deals with well-known corporations. Sneed was re-elected in 2019 after serving two years as appointed chief.

Those deals range from long-term projects including a casino in Indiana and Virginia and world’s largest Buc-ee’s gas station chain, as well as plans from the tribe’s venture capital arm to build, ”The 407: Gateway to Adventure” in Sevierville, Tennessee and become part owners of a Sports Illustrated resort in the Dominican Republic.

During the debate, Sneed talked about his record of low spending.

"I came in with a goal of getting us to 75% of projection for our annual budget,” he said. “We reach that goal in fiscal year ‘21, and I'm happy to report that the budget that I just presented to council for fiscal year ‘24. As a is at an all-time historic low of 73% of casino projection.”

Hicks disputed Sneed’s claims, citing 20 balanced budgets during his time in EBCI leadership.

“And by the way, Chief, I'm going to make an argument here. We never budgeted at 100 percent of gaming so I don't know where your information is,” Hicks said. “Because we knew that, you know, we had to hedge against any financial downturn, market variations – anything of that nature.”

Sneed touted the diversification initiatives that brought in funding during his tenure.

“We've entered into other markets and gaming in Indiana in Virginia, in Kentucky. We have the 407 development at Sevierville. Just recently, the governor Cooper signed a Statewide Mobile bill, which myself (and others) had negotiated so that the Eastern Band is guaranteed a mobile license statewide,” Sneed said.

Throughout the campaign, Hicks maintained the tribe needs to tighten its proverbial belt on capital spending. He said that while the tribe has money, it is all tied up in investments.

“Again we’ve got more money than we've ever had. But we're questioning, where's that next dollar coming from” he said. “Yeah, we have we have diversified, but you know what? We've also over committed.”

Tribal Council meets September 7 for a discussion about continuing the 2023 budget until the 2024 budget can be finalized. The budget was first on the agenda in June with an initial plan to finalize it in July.

The candidates stand on common ground in regard to fully funding the preservation of the Cherokee language and cultural education.

“My Administration has not just talked about the importance of language, culture and history, but we've actually taken action to preserve and proliferated, and first and foremost was getting Kituwah into a trust,” Sneed said.

The Kituwah Mound is known as the Mother Town and birthplace of the Cherokee. It became a part of the tribe’s federal trust land in 2021 during Sneed’s time in office.

During the debate both candidates spoke about the state of emergency that the Cherokee language is in. There are fewer than 200 fluent speakers at this point.

“We are now producing Cherokee language speakers. The real game changer came when we created the adult language positions as full-time positions. So these are regular tribal employees now,” Sneed said.

Hicks agreed but said there can be improvements to the language programs.

“I believe that we can better use technology. We have about 140 or less [fluent] speakers at this time, and I believe that we've got to do everything that we possibly can to capture every aspect of their knowledge as soon as possible,” Hicks said.

Hicks said the knowledge and skill of fluent speakers should be compensated.

“I think that as we look at each one of these speakers they're in a specialized field. No, they don’t necessarily you know have a high degree and in education. But they do have a high degree in the Cherokee language and we have to pay them accordingly.”

When Hicks who served as principal chief for 12 years beginning in 2003, did not seek reelection in 2015, Patrick Lambert succeeded him.

Soon after his election, Lambert accused Hicks and others of past corruption. Lambert was impeached by the tribal council for entering into improper contracts, improperly spending tribal funds and other offenses in 2017. He was found guilty of by the council on 8 out of 12 articles of impeachment. Sneed, who served as Lambert’s vice chief, was sworn in as principal chief on the day of impeachment.

The friction between the three men emerged again in this campaign season when Lambert endorsed Hicks in a political ad published in the Cherokee One Feather.

The details: Voting

  • Early voting began in late August but this week is the last chance to vote.
  • Eligibility: Enrolled members of the tribe age 18 and over by the election date can vote. Here are more details on eligibility and absentee voting.
  • On the ballot: In addition to the principal chief role, voters will also make their choices for vice chief, tribal council and some members of the school board. Two referenda are also on the ballot.
Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.