At its anniversary and with a new compact, Cherokee foundation prepares for change

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After ten years with executive director Susan Jenkins, seen here, who is retiring in December, and with a newly approved compact between the Eastern Band and the state, Cherokee Preservation Foundation leaders are preparing for the future — but are also mulling over what has already been accomplished. Mike Belleme/Carolina Public Press

About five minutes from downtown Cherokee, a discreet, gray building — with past lives as a halfway house, boarding school and courthouse — sits in the Qualla Boundary. A sign with Cherokee syllabary painted in red above its English counterpart reads “Cherokee Preservation Foundation” next to a basket-weave logo that means “unbroken friendship.”

Within the last decade, $58 million has flowed through the Cherokee Preservation Foundation’s doors and coffers to projects geared toward benefiting the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the seven-county region of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties.

After ten years with executive director Susan Jenkins, who is retiring in December, and with a newly approved compact between the Eastern Band and the state, foundation leaders are preparing for the future — but are also mulling over what has already been accomplished.

“Up until 15 years ago, this tribe didn’t have the resources they have now,” Jenkins said. Notably, in November 1997, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino opened. “This tribe has done so well in really reinvesting in the community. Some tribes aren’t as good as this one is, as far as reinvestment.”

Launched first by an agreement

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation, seen here on Wednesday, June 27, recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Within the last decade, $58 million has flowed through the Cherokee Preservation Foundation’s doors and coffers to projects geared toward benefiting the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the seven-county region of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. Mike Belleme/Carolina Public Press

The foundation was established in November 2000 as part of the second amendment to the 1994 Tribal-State Compact between the Eastern Band and the state of North Carolina. A small percentage of gaming revenues, which amounts to a minimum of $6 million a year under the second amendment of 2000, funds the foundation, which is independent of the casino.

Though the foundation was chartered on paper in 2000, it didn’t really take shape until 2002. After the amendment, a board of directors came together and hired Jenkins to be the executive director. She started in January 2002 and began the physical process of hiring staff and remodeling the building.

Jenkins explains that a compact is essentially a contract between the state and the Eastern Band that sets out how much the tribe must pay the state for the right to have one or more casinos. In November, Gov. Bev Perdue signed a 30-year compact with Chief Michell Hicks [PDF] that was, in June, approved by state legislators and then sent to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The new compact grants the Eastern Band exclusive live-gaming rights west of Interstate 26 in exchange for the tribe paying the state 4 percent of gross receipts from live-table gaming during the first five years. That number will increase to up to 8 percent during the final 10 years of the compact. The state’s share of the funds will be funneled into school districts across the state. Click here to see Senate Bill 582 [PDF].

For the foundation, the newly completed compact may mean its base could increase to $7.5 million annually.

Jenkins praised former Gov. James Hunt and former Chief Leon Jones, the arbitrators of what she calls the “very unique” 2000 amendment that created the foundation.

“Instead of taking the money and sending it to Raleigh, (they said,) ‘We’re going to take those resources and create an entity that takes the money and reinvests into the community, into the Qualla Boundary and the seven counties,’” Jenkins said.

The foundation’s reinvestment goes to three focus areas: cultural preservation (which receives 48 percent of grant funds), economic development and employment opportunities (another 31 percent of grant funds), and environmental preservation (the remaining 21 percent).

From the fall 2002 to the spring 2012 grant cycle, 964 grant proposals were received and some $58 million granted. The foundation funds up to 50 percent of a project’s needs. For every dollar given by the foundation, it has been matched by $1.58 in funds or grants, in-kind or leveraged resources, making the foundation’s total economic impact about $149.8 million.

‘When we started, only three people could do that’

Susan Jenkins holds a sturdy, double-weave rivercane basket with walnut and yellow root dyes at the foundation’s office.

“When we started,” she said, “there were only three people who could do that.”

So the foundation provided Qualla Arts & Crafts, the downtown co-op downtown, with some resources to teach the craft. Today, they have six to eight basket artists.

“For every action, there is a reaction,” Jenkins says with a laugh. “We only had enough rivercane for those (original) three.”

And, for the first time since the 1960s, rivercane basketry came back to Cherokee’s schools when the foundation started a program called Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Resources in 2004.

David Cozzo, an ethno-botanist and the project’s director, said the effort “would not exist if wasn’t for the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.” The foundation and RTCAR have a special relationship because the foundation funds RTCAR, an independent organization, which then does some grant making for the foundation in developing and preserving artistic resources.

“We’ve appreciated them and butted heads a few times, all in the balance of figuring out who we are,” Cozzo said.

But with such diverse goals, the foundation funds a wide range of efforts in the region, from brick-and-mortar efforts to revitalize downtown Cherokee to efforts to preserve the Cherokee language and to develop selfless leaders with Cherokee core values, including spirituality, sense of place, group harmony and strong individual character.

Bobby Raines, program director at the foundation, said The Right Path, a yearlong adult leadership program launched in 2010, deals with the problem of a “leadership void” that occurred when Eastern Band members left their positions for casino jobs.

Raines say The Right Path brings established Cherokee value-based leadership techniques to the forefront again. But, Raines said there are still challenges in the workplace.

“Sometimes we are surprised when people don’t act like Cherokees,” Raines said. “Trying to reclaim the cultural connection—that sense of tribal identity—is challenging. It was 400 years and a lot of resources (that) went into making us not act like Cherokees.”

Juanita Wilson, program manager of The Right Path, said developing The Right Path program involved a lot of community discussion on Cherokee values.

“It took years of talking to community leaders, members, volunteers, the quiet ones who don’t come and speak,” she said.

The foundation has also found ways to fund landscape-changing efforts across the region — both in the economy and the environment.

For example, in 2004, it helped launch the Sequoyah Fund, an independent, small-business lender similar to the Asheville-based Mountain BizWorks.

Around the same time, the foundation convened the Visions Qualla effort to revitalize downtown Cherokee as many of the buildings “looked like 1950s construction,” according to Jenkins. Sequoyah provided low-interest loans to shopkeepers in the “horseshoe” — now known as the Riverbend shopping area of downtown — to finance building store facades. Fountains were later added.

Just recently, metal poles attached with solar panels, known by the foundation staff as “solar trees,” were installed at Riverbend to generate all of the electricity used by the downtown Welcome Center. The effort was a part of the environmental Generations Qualla program.

“The hope is to get people comfortable with seeing them,” said Dan Martin, senior program associate at the foundation. “It’s the most elegant way to have solar panels and to bring to the forefront of people’s minds what is possible.”

Room for change

When asked how he thinks the foundation’s course will change without Jenkins, Cozzo said it will simply depend on who the new director is.

The foundation’s board of directors hired Jenkins, a sociologist then working at the Hitachi Foundation in Washington, D.C., as executive director in 2002. Jenkins, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma who spent her teen years in Ohio, said she was happy to return to a rural setting among native people.

At the time she decided to come to Cherokee, she said she thought, “It might be an interesting opportunity for me to work in the community in some ways I was disconnected from.”

Today, Jenkins shrugs off the word retirement, and said she will keep busy with her membership on the board of the Native Arts and Culture Foundation, running and gardening at her home in Waynesville. She says she also hopes to help leaders of other tribes with using gaming funds to revitalize their communities.

The foundation’s board of directors is searching for Jenkins’s replacement, and a new director is anticipated to begin on Jan. 1.

And though there is leadership change coming, Jenkins said the compact is pretty clear about maintaining the foundation’s focus on the three areas of cultural preservation, economic development and environmental preservation.

The foundation also has set goals for 2011-2016 in the ga-du-gi 10-year report. [PDF] “Ga-du-gi” is a Cherokee word meaning “working together and helping hands and community,” described by foundation staff as their cornerstone.

But Jenkins says there is room for change.

“You’re always going to have to tweak as you go along,” she said. “We want to have more grantees in the ten communities, trying to come up with ways for them to enhance their community.

“In some ways, we’re just planting a lot of seeds, and we’re seeing some germinate now.”


For more:

View a photo essay, from photographer Mike Belleme, showing one view of how this decade-old foundation has helped shape Cherokee and the surrounding counties’ economy, culture, environment and more.

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About the Author

Katy Nelson

Katy Nelson is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at katy.nelson@gmail.com.

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