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Cherokees Seek Peace At Holiday Tribe Hopes To End Months Of Feuding As Members Gather For Celebration

Kelly Kurt Associated Press

They found the plaster Cherokee Nation seal lying broken on the floor of the courthouse when the boards came off the doors this week. Split cleanly in two, it remained a fitting symbol for a tribe divided.

After six months of internal feuding, the head of the nation’s second-largest tribe urged peace this weekend, when 50,000 people were expected for the 45th Cherokee National Holiday, a celebration of the tribe’s culture and traditions.

“It is a time to see children laughing and elders talking. And it is also a time for us to begin to heal,” Principal Chief Joe Byrd said. “I think there still has to be a healing process, but I think in time we will move forward.”

In February, Byrd fired marshals who served a search warrant for financial documents tied to a criminal investigation of his office. Subsequent strife has led to lawsuits, arrests, an FBI investigation and police presence from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Eight of 15 members of the Tribal Council voted to impeach three appeals judges in May. Byrd’s guards took control of the courthouse and locked out the three judges in June. A group of fired marshals tried to storm the 130-year-old courthouse Aug. 13 on behalf of the justices, but their effort failed and turned into a brawl.

The courthouse reopened Wednesday to the public and to the tribe’s judicial arm for the first time since guards seized control of it for Byrd. The reopening was part of an agreement Byrd and several council members signed Monday with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in an effort to resolve the turmoil.

A three-member panel investigating the turmoil issued a final report Friday in which it agreed Byrd had the right to hire and fire the marshals. It also deemed the impeachment of the justices void because the council did not have a quorum.

The report criticized the handling of the conflict by all three branches of tribal government, but it did not end the finger pointing.

“I was disappointed they felt the chief could fire someone for exercising his authority” as a law enforcement officer, said Pat Ragsdale, the fired chief marshal. Byrd said he fired Ragsdale for insubordination.

Noticeably absent will be a State of the Nation speech by the chief of the 182,000-member tribe. In a concession designed to help keep the peace, Byrd agreed to forgo the traditional speech.

Some on Byrd’s side had alleged that former Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller was behind the turmoil in an attempt to oust her successor. Mankiller, who has battled cancer and other health problems, told the panel Thursday that such “nonsense” and other misinformation had fueled the infighting.

Several tribal members said they don’t want to fight during a holiday that serves as a giant reunion.

Mankiller continues to support the fired marshals but also urged that the tribe unify to make peace.

“We’ve rebuilt the Cherokee Nation over and over and over again,” she said. “We’ll do it again.”

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