Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
Southwestern Community College, North Carolina
By Evelyn L. KentCommunity College Times
March 29, 2005
Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians since October 2003, is a man who's perfectly willing to work around commonly accepted practices.
For instance, he graduated with an associate degree in accounting from Southwestern Community College in Sylva, N.C., three years after he earned a bachelor's degree in business management in 1987.
Perhaps more significantly, Hicks has been an employee of the tribe with increasingly responsible positions since 1987 and has helped changed the tribe's approach to economic development.
Cherokee is minutes from the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge area of Tennessee. Until recently the Eastern Band had been dependent on tourism as its primary revenue generator, but, Hicks said, it had become a stagnant resource.
"We identified areas in the economic development realm that were important to the tribe for heritage reasons but needed resources," Hicks said.
To help provide those resources, in November 1997, the Eastern Band opened the Harrah's Cherokee Casino, boosting the tribe’s revenue by 1,200 percent. The resulting funds have been used to improve basic needs such as road, water and sewer systems, and housing and health care programs.
Those funds also help the tribe invest in its future by educating its people. "Education is the future of the tribe," Hicks said. So the tribe offers a "fairly sizable" scholarship package to its 1,300 members. "You can almost say that if a student wants to attend any school in the states, he can," he said.
The surrounding area has benefited as well. The tribe employees 3,200 and Hicks believes the Eastern Band is the state’s largest single-site employer west of Charlotte. The casino alone employs 1,900.
In addition, the Eastern Band has partnered with private groups to finance a fiber-optic system for western North Carolina to help recruit businesses to the area. Southwestern Community College helped the Eastern Band structure that project. "We've been a very good regional partner," Hicks said.
Many of Hicks' plans for the future involve bolstering social services for the tribe. The health care system serves many but is always in need of resources. There are housing waiting lists that have hundreds of names on them. He also intends to concentrate on preserving crafts such as basket weaving, pottery, masking making, finger weaving and wood carving that have always been important to the tribe.
He would like to help in the restoration of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which commemorates the removal of the Cherokee from the East Coast. Today the trail encompasses about 2,200 miles of land and water routes, and traverses portions of nine states, according to the National Park Service.
Hicks isn't scared of having an ambitious agenda as he feels success is matter of prioritizing what's important to the tribe and focusing on those things that can be accomplished. Part of doing that is understanding his resources and how to reach out and get the maximum benefit of them. The most important of those, he has found, are human resources.
"I surround myself with competent people who are forward thinkers in regard to the tribe," he said.
"Over time I've dealt with a lot of very intelligent people. I've always been a good common sense person. That gives me a good balance."