Cherokee Nation Chief Speaks to VOA on US Promises, Progress

President Joe Biden convened a two-day summit Wednesday with the heads of more than 300 tribal groups, saying his administration is committed to writing “a new and better chapter of history” for the more than 570 Native American communities in the United States by making it easier for them to access federal funding.

Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of the Cherokee Nation, one of the largest Indigenous tribes in the United States, spoke to VOA about those efforts and also some of the themes of Native history that are in the forefront today.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: What are your goals for your half-million citizens at this summit?

Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.: It’s to press the administration on meeting America’s commitment but also learn more about what their plans are. … The most important thing for the Cherokee Nation, I think — and all tribes — is the efficient deployment of resources, and then allowing tribes to decide how to use those resources. So, a more efficient, streamlined process in terms of getting funding out.

VOA: The Biden administration says it will release at this summit a report card of sorts. What’s your assessment of how the administration has succeeded and where it could do better?

Hoskin: I think overall, it’s been very, very positive. … The bipartisan infrastructure deal has been important for the Cherokee Nation. The American Rescue Plan has enabled us to do things that may seem small to the rest of the world, like putting a cell tower in a community that didn’t have cellphone access, by improving water systems.

VOA: Any criticism?

Hoskin: To the extent that it’s criticism: The federal government’s a big ship, it’s tough to steer. What I have seen over the years is, you get a new administration in, it takes a while for the relationships to be built up, for executive orders on consultation to translate down to agencies.

VOA: President Biden has not made — publicly, at least — any sort of land acknowledgment statement. Is that something you seek?

Hoskin: Reminding the country that there were aboriginal people here before anyone ever heard of the United States, I think that’s important. But I think in terms of what tribal citizens want to see, and what tribal leaders want to see is access to land, control of resources, more land placed into trust for the benefit of Native Americans.

VOA: The current war between Israel and Hamas is also about land. Do you have any advice for President Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during this very tense moment?

Hoskin: I do think there are some parallels. You’re talking about people who say that they’ve been on the land from time immemorial. That’s what we Cherokees say, and we have a history of being dispossessed from our land. I would just remind people that there’s a way to balance rights. I think we’re trying to do that in the United States in terms of Indian Country versus the rest of the country. We haven’t perfected it, but I think we’re making some progress. So, all I would say is the respect and dignity that every human being deserves ought to be on display anytime you’re having these sorts of situations. That’s a difficult sentiment to express in the midst of some real difficulties.

VOA: Adversaries of the U.S. have weaponized the well-documented suffering of Native Americans, saying the U.S. doesn’t have the moral high ground on the world stage.

Hoskin: Certainly it would be accurate to say the United States has an appalling record towards Indigenous peoples. Is it perfect now? No, it’s not. But we’re making progress. I mean, think about what’s happened on the world stage. In Australia, that country just rejected the recognition of aboriginal people. In the United States, we have federal recognition. … We do have a foundation upon which we built a great deal. And so, to those critics of the United States, I would say, come to the Cherokee Nation and look at what we’re doing, leading in things like health care and lifting up people economically. It’s not perhaps the picture that has been painted by some of these regimes.

VOA: I believe you knew [former Cherokee chief] Wilma Mankiller very well. Talk a bit about her.

Hoskin: Anybody in the world who cares about human rights, the dignity of everybody, civil rights, they should get to know her. … She reminded us of who we are and what we always had in us, which was the ability to govern ourselves, to protect ourselves, to understand we have this common history and destiny. She reminded us that we were Cherokee after generations of being suppressed and a bit beaten down. So, she lifted us up. The fact that there’s a Barbie doll that depicts her, that there’s a quarter from the United States Mint — that shows what a powerful person she was.

VOA: How do you feel about not being consulted on the Barbie doll?

Hoskin: Well, I think it’s disrespect on the part of Mattel, but I will also tell you that they very quickly understood that, and we’re engaging. So, I think that overall, I appreciate Mattel depicting Wilma Mankiller, the great Cherokee chief. On balance, this is a good thing.

VOA: What does it mean to you to be an American?

Hoskin: I think a lot about this. I can go back a few generations to my ancestors who signed up to fight for this country in World War I and World War II — while within their living memory, there was a great deal of oppression and atrocities by this country to their own people. But in terms of the principles of what we want for this country, like freedom and opportunity for everyone, if we aspire to that, that’s something we all share. And so for me, that’s what it means to be an American.

VOA: How do you feel about public holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving?

Hoskin: Columbus Day is abhorrent. [Christopher Columbus is] demonstrably somebody who engaged in great atrocities towards Native peoples. … There’s plenty to celebrate in American history without celebrating and misstating what he did. In terms of Thanksgiving, I think it’s become for the Cherokee people something that we just celebrate in terms of what unites humanity, which is giving thanks for what we have and trying to do better.

VOA: Anything else you’d like to tell our audience? We broadcast in 48 languages. Would you like to say something in your language?

Hoskin: Sure. I’d say “osiyo,” which is “hello” in Cherokee. And “donadagohvi,” which is ”we will see each other again.” We don’t say goodbye. We just look forward to seeing people again. I look forward to seeing you again.

VOA: And I look forward to seeing you again.

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