CHEROKEE — Richard Sneed was elected to a four-year term as the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on Sept. 5, a position he has held for the past two years after the previous chief, Patrick Lambert, was removed on corruption charges. Sneed defeated Teresa McCoy, an ally of the ousted Lambert, receiving 55% of the total vote.
“I came into office the worst possible way — following an impeachment,” Sneed told North State Journal in an interview. “Nobody wants to come into office this way; I can assure you.”
Sneed said he wanted to move on from what he called “a really dark time” for the tribe.
“It was the most divisive event that I know of that has ever happened in our tribe over the last 50-75 years. But that’s one of the things I worked on when I came into office was to try to bring unity and stability.”
Sneed was born to a father who was a tribal member and a mother who was not. They divorced when he was young, and his mother raised him in New Jersey, until he was 14, when he moved back to Cherokee to live with his father. He enlisted in the U.S. Marines after graduating high school, where he was a diesel mechanic from 1986-1990 while stationed in Japan. Sneed is from a “military family,” saying his father, grandfather, brother, sister and his wife are all veterans as well.
Upon returning to Cherokee after his time in the military, Sneed spent 12 years as the high school shop teacher, which is why many on the Qualla Boundary (the ECBI’s tribal land) call him “Teach” or “Coach.” He won awards for his teaching and was able to integrate financial literacy and life skills into his classes.
Although Sneed looks fondly on this time, and sometimes says he thinks he should have kept teaching, he thought tribal politics was deeply broken and was drawn to trying to improve it.
“One of the comments I heard over and over again was that this was the quietest election cycle ever. And I said, yeah, because one of my goals is to change the culture of tribal politics, which can get pretty nasty. The cornerstone of our campaign was really financial stability and progress.”
For financial stability, Sneed said he was able to eliminate $85 million in spending over 2 years “without cutting any jobs, services or programs.” He believes that in the past, the Cherokee relied too heavily on the federal government, and now, many of the tribe’s members are becoming reliant on casino revenue in a way that prevents them from developing their own careers and accomplishments.
“Generations grew up with a form of government, that, for lack of a better term, is a welfare state,” Sneed said. “Unfortunately, when you do that to a people, any people, and it’s not just tribal nations, the outcome is always the same. It’s learned helplessness. My goal over the last four years, and certainly for the last two as principal chief, has been to move away from that and to move towards empowering the individual, as opposed to the federal government model, which is paternalistic.”
One example of the tribe moving away from creating dependency in members was the move to distribute the trust fund in staggered payments, rather than all at once. In the past, once a tribal member turned 18, all the previous monthly payments that were set aside for them were delivered. This could be around $100,000. Now they split that up into three payments — $25,000 when they turn 18, $25,000 when they turn 21, then the balance of their trust fund when they turn 25.
Sneed said he saw the impact of the money when it was delivered in one lump sum, and it would negatively affect his students, who would often buy expensive cars and get lost in a world of parties and substance abuse. Twice a year, in June and December, when the money is distributed, there would be a spike in drug overdoses and trafficking arrests.
“So the reason for the staggered distribution is I had students who ended up addicted; I had students who ended up in jail; I had students who ended up in prison; I had students who ended up dead. So enough is enough. Who in their right mind hands an 18-year-old $100,000 cash?”
Sneed says the tribe is looking to diversify their economy locally, because at the moment they are very reliant on this casino revenue. A cultural shift on gaming is happening, and states, even more conservative Southern states, are beginning to loosen regulations on the industry.
“As the markets around us open up, and there are more and more gaming operations developed, that will certainly cut into our revenue stream, so we’ve got to be prepared for that. That’s a threat that we’re being proactive in addressing.”
Plans the tribe are developing to diversify their local economy include an 85,000-square-foot convention space, some manufacturing jobs, more gaming, hotels and hospitality investments. Sneed says much of this would be off the Qualla Boundary, potentially across the country.
“I would love for our young people, once they graduate and get a degree, to work in an industry or in a business that we own somewhere else in the country. That would be great. So, there’s potential there.”
The tribe pays 100% of all college costs for members all the way through a doctorate degree. He recommends they take advantage of this and then “spend some time in the real world” afterwards to learn about how life works without benefits like free healthcare, education, housing credits and business assistance. About half of the tribe’s 16,000 members already live off the boundary.
But even as the tribe moves out into the world, the tribal council is focused on preserving the Cherokee culture, worried things like language and customs are slipping away.
Sneed said in their yearly joint meeting with the three federally-recognized Cherokee tribes (the ECBI in North Carolina and two others based in Oklahoma), they approved a resolution declaring a state of emergency with regards to the Cherokee language, which only 200 now speak fluently in N.C. Afterwards, the Eastern Band voted to establish a cultural division to preserve the language, arts and traditional ways of their people.
One custom that Sneed is particularly passionate about is “stickball.” He is quick to differentiate it from the street baseball sometimes also called stickball. This centuries-old game, which the Cherokee called the “Little Brother of War,” is the predecessor to Lacrosse, and involves a shoeless, shirtless struggle that often leads to injuries as players tackle one another for the ball.
Sneed actually broke his foot the week after the election while playing an exhibition game at UNC Asheville.
“My injury was a pretty typical injury. It’s just a hazard of the game. People used to die playing it, but it was used to prevent larger wars between tribes. Games would go on for days.”
One of his former students, who Sneed says is a “big ol’ boy” now at 23 years old and probably 6’2’’ 275 pounds, delivered the blow that caused the injury.
“He didn’t feel bad, are you kidding? His dad did message me later, but that’s part of the game. That’s what happens.”