Chad Smith, the new principal chief of the embattled Cherokee Nation, wanted to send a symbolic message that his was going to be an accessible administration. But he thought removing the door to his office wasn't enough. So he removed a 25-foot glass wall that led to his office suite.
"People need to feel they can reach me," Smith said at Cherokee headquarters here recently. "We want an administration that encourages criticism and constructive thought. Our credibility and image are on the line. We have lost a lot of prestige in the last four years."
Smith, 48, has a great challenge ahead of him. The nation's second-largest tribe (after the Navajos)--once considered a paragon of self-reliance--has in recent years been beset by allegations of financial misconduct, lawsuits, investigations, debts and vicious infighting.
"It was extremely frustrating knowing what tremendous resources the tribe had . . . were being destroyed daily," said Smith, who is half Cherokee.
The tribe's troubles started with the election four years ago of Joe Byrd, who had prevailed in a hotly contested race to succeed the popular Wilma Mankiller. Byrd's detractors--Smith chief among them--quickly raised questions about his judgment and competence, setting in motion events that plunged the tribe into chaos and led to federal intervention.
Recognized as a sovereign nation, the Cherokee Nation receives about $100 million in federal funds. Its government is guided by a constitution, ratified in 1975, that calls for a principal chief elected by the 200,000-member tribe, a 15-member elected legislative council and a judiciary appointed by the chief.
In 1997, when Byrd failed under court order to turn over the tribe's financial records--sought by adversaries on the council--the Cherokee court ordered a search of his office by Cherokee marshals. Byrd retaliated by firing the marshal service, and successfully urged his majority supporters on the council to impeach the three-judge tribunal that had authorized the search. Byrd has denied wrongdoing.
By the end of summer 1997, the Cherokee Nation was in a constitutional crisis. Byrd had dismissed virtually every Cherokee official who could challenge his authority and asked the federal government to take over law enforcement, a move that infuriated cultural purists such as Smith who saw the tribe's autonomy diminished.
Federal officials publicly supported Byrd's administration--but privately questioned his ability and willingness to resolve the problems that had engulfed the tribe. In late August 1997, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt attempted to mediate a solution during an eight-hour meeting in Washington, only to have Byrd refuse to sign off on the terms.
The tensions never eased, and by September of last year, Smith became the first of nine to challenge Byrd. A local lawyer, academic and Cherokee historian, Smith has long been active in Indian affairs. Although he was raised in Denver and Nashville, his Cherokee roots are in Oklahoma. His great-grandfather was Redbird Smith--a legendary Cherokee who was jailed in the 1800s until he agreed to accept federal government allotments, which he believed were not enough compensation for Indian lands.
When early in the campaign it was revealed that Smith had fathered three children with a woman other than his wife of 23 years, some thought the embarrassing news would be his political undoing. Instead, he garnered the second-highest number of votes behind Byrd in the May primary, forcing the chief into a runoff. The other candidates joined forces behind him in an all-out effort to unseat Byrd. Smith ended up beating Byrd by 1,600 votes out of roughly 13,000 cast.
Smith was sworn into office in August, and six weeks later--at the new chief's insistence--the council approved a budget for the first time in four years.
He also recently made a trip to Washington aimed at rebuilding the tribe's credibility. He met with the state's congressional delegation and Babbitt. But Smith has even grander plans. Early government treaties suggest the tribe could be entitled to send a delegate to Congress. He has already begun researching the viability of that pledge.
"I want to exercise every government right we have," he said.
Smith recently has been a private attorney in Sapulpa, Okla. He was the tribe's chief prosecutor from 1991 to 1995.
As one of Byrd's most relentless critics, Smith feels vindicated by his election victory. When Byrd seized control of the Cherokee courthouse, Smith was wrestled to the ground and arrested as he protested the effort. State charges against Smith for inciting a riot are pending.
"I could never uphold our constitution if I had not done something," Smith said. "I would have denied the legacy of my father and grandparents, and denied my children's future."
Title: Principal chief, Cherokee Nation
Family: Married, six children.
Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Georgia; master's in public administration, University of Wisconsin; law degree, University of Tulsa Law School.
Previous jobs: Private attorney; Tulsa County public defender; tribal prosecutor, Cherokee Nation; business and legal consultant for the tribe.
Hobbies: "If I had the time for hobbies, it would be rebuilding old Studebakers. I have four in the garage right now that need work."
CAPTION: Chad Smith speaks at his August inauguration as Cherokee principal chief in Tahlequah, Okla.