COMMENTARY: A perspective on Tribal Constitutions and Grand Councils

by Apr 25, 2023OPINIONS0 comments


Yellowhill Community (former Tribal Council Chairman)


I had just finished preparing some documents concerning records relating to the term Grand Council in the proposed Constitution when I saw the new controversy over it.  In 2019 I made comments concerning the misinterpretation of the Grand Council to the Constitution Committee.  Now, I have been not happy about the premise for using the term Grand Council associated with Community Club activities.  I had recently presented my presentation to a Tribal Leadership Group concerning Our Governing documents through our history and was hoping to have a small portion of that presentation printed in the One Feather.

Part of a presentation to an enrolled member group: Did you know that from 1897 to 1986 our Constitution was a piece of North Carolina legislation adopted under the Private Laws of the State of North Carolina?

Our base roll is the 1924 Baker Roll. Do you know why and how it was established?

Do you know what a Grand Council is? This is probably the most misunderstood and improperly used term in our history. This has caused much concern and friction among our people. This is a term that was defined by Lloyd Welch and appears in every governing document since.

Let’s review our history from the Cherokee Nation Constitution of 1827 to the present. Our governing documents are the 1868 to 1897 Lloyd Welch Constitution, 1889 a corporate business charter by North Carolina legislation, 1897 Charter and Governing Document 1897 to 1986, 1986 to present the 1897 Charter amended by 4 items voted on by the People in 1986.

The 1924 Baker Roll was what was to be the final roll for allotting our lands to individual members of the Tribe. The lands would be allotted for 25 years of individual trust and then they would convert to fee simple lands. This is what the Cherokee Nation did with their 1898 Dawes Roll. Thanks to our luck, in 1934 Congress stopped our allotments with the 1934-Wheeler Act. So, since the 1924 Baker Roll, we had no official roll until 1957, when Congress authorized the Eastern Band to conduct a revised roll which we use today with the provision that one must have a direct ancestor on the 1924 roll, possess at least 1/16th Eastern Cherokee blood, and get enrolled by their 19th birthday. In the meantime, the BIA in their annual reports started in 1898 to keep a census of all Indian tribes in the nation. They continued it until 1940 and stopped. I do not know why they stopped.

Grand Council: All generations of the governing document stat that there will be an Annual or Grand Council on the 1st Monday in October of each year (by the elected representatives from each of the Townships). After that Grand Council, in case it is needed, the Principal Chief may call a Special Council. In 1968 I was very close to our Principal Chief (Walter Jackson), as I was managing the Boundary Tree Enterprise for the Tribe at the time, and he was my boss. At that time, some of the (Tribal) Council members wanted him to call a Special Council to address their issues. Chief Jackson did not agree to that, so the next time they were in the October Grand Council, Council started recessing with out adjourning, which allowed the Council to stay in session all year long. That practice has stayed the practice from then to today. If some Chief had challenged that action, I believe he or she would have prevailed. However, we did not have our own Supreme Court so handy in those days. Resolutions at the time were titled ‘In Annual Council Assembled” or ‘in Special Council Assembled.”

I have personally witnessed several so-called Grand Councils of the People over the years. Some Chiefs that called one knew that every action the assembled people agreed to would have to be approved by the elected Council to become lawful, some did not.

Why did Lloyd Welch call the Annual Council “Grand Council”? Maybe, because it was to be an only one time per year required Council and any other Council would be called by the Chief as needed, and those were Special Councils. Or was it because we had just become federally recognized in 1868 as the “Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians” and the different townships had been governing themselves-and now we would be an entity of all Townships? It certainly was not a gathering of most of the people, as transportation-wise, that would be impossible. During Lloyd Welch’s term, he never called a so-called People’s Council, nor did one ever get called during the Lloyd Welch Constitution between 1968 and 1897. A so-called Grand Council did not get called until the 1970s. The Annual or Grand Council on the first Monday in October is the Grand Council as defined by Lloyd Welch, and it has always been in all our governing documents defined as members whose credentials have been certified to sit as representatives of their respective townships on the Grand Council.

In the 1970s, Chief Noah Powell called a Grand Council at the Outdoor Drama Theatre to get the opinion as to whether to spend some early claims money on programs for the people or pay it out to members. They voted to pay it out and the elected Tribal Council passed a lawful resolution to do that. Later, Chief John Crowe called a Grand Council at the high school to address a possible Constitutional change. Chief Dugan called one around 1996 to get the people’s opinion on having a Department of Interior Secretarial Constitution Election. It had a positive vote and the elected Council approved to have it. The Secretarial Vote failed acceptance by the people. In 2017, Chief Patrick Lambert called a Grand Council of the people at the Central Schools. The Tribal Supreme Court ruled that Ground Council had no basis in law.

My conclusion: A referendum vote of the People, as presently practiced, is the best process to get the People’s opinion.