A friend in Cherokee emailed me recently to tell me that former Principal Chief Robert Youngdeer has died. I worked for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for 15 years, and I have to say that he was one of the most remarkable people I ever met.
He was a war hero and had been shot by a Japanese sniper during WWII. He told me once that the bullet went in the back of his head and emerged from a space between his nose and lip. He got up without assistance and walked to the hospital. He was also a professional boxer for a while and after the war, he went into law enforcement for the Cherokee tribe in Oklahoma. He received a number of awards from the western Cherokees, but eventually, he returned to the Eastern Band of Cherokees.
He loved the Appalachian Trail and spent a great deal of time hiking and camping. At the time of his return, the Cherokee tribal government was receiving considerable criticism for corruption, so Robert decided to run for Principal Chief. He won, of course, but he had considerable trouble functioning as the “new” Chief since he undertook to “clean house.” His term as Chief was characterized by some bitter struggles and many were determined to make him a one-term Chief.
A famous quote from the opposition was “Robert Younger has a serious flaw. He is honest, and an honest Chief can never be a successful Chief.”
He lost, of course, and retired from politics. However, he took an active interest in such issues as the Tellico Plains controversy in which TVA flooded the old burial grounds in Telco.
When Robert decided to write his autobiography, it was an awesome work, but he ran into trouble when he attempted to get it published. He told me that his old political enemies were opposed to the tribal publishing of his autobiography. As a result, he asked me to help. I asked Dot Jackson, a published writer with a reputation. She agreed and then Dot and I asked the late Cherokee writer Robert Conley who was successful where we had failed. The autobiography was published and a marvelous publication it is.
I rode with Robert to Tellico when he went to pick up the remains of Cherokees that had been removed from the sacred burial grounds by the archaeology department. The archaeology department was reluctant to give them up and asked Robert if they might talk to him in the future about studying the remains. Robert told me he intended to burial them near the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum under a ton of concrete.
Rest in Peace, Robert. You are still my friend.