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A Native Candidate’s Story

When Barbara Vicknair (enrolled citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a current Town Council member of Murphy, North Carolina) was a young girl, she became keenly aware of walking between two cultures — that of her Cherokee father and of her non-Native mother. Like many young Native children, she learned what she knew about the tribal political system of her tribe from her father, and not in school. Her father shared his political involvement and electoral participation with her and influenced her later interest as an adult in tribal and non-Native politics. Even though Barbara remained open to listening to her father’s opinion on candidates, platforms and policies, she was quick to form her own thoughts and opinions independently of him. Despite this conviction, and again like most young Native adults, Barbara did not become involved in voting when she first came of voting age. With a few years of “life experience” behind her, her enthusiasm to be a participant evolved as she moved further into adulthood.

With a return back to her hometown in 1991, pivotal local issues spurred her interest in non-Native issues and campaigns in the small Appalachian community, and then in 1998 she herself decided to pursue a position as a local County Commissioner. She won her first office, beating an entrenched incumbent, and went on to serve two terms. She distinguished herself as both, the first woman, and the first Native American to hold such an office in the western North Carolina region (home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Qualla Boundary Reservation).

“I remember those early supporters who encouraged me in my first campaign quietly suggesting that I not mention that I was Native. Shocked, I always responded that my father had always taught me to be proud of my heritage and that it would be an important part of my introduction to possible constituents.”

Although a lifelong Republican, Vicknair has never voted a straight ticket; she proudly casts her vote for the individual candidate despite party affiliation. Although Vicknair’s participation to date has been in non-Native campaigns and politics, she feels strongly regarding participation in both forms of government. She takes careful time in deciphering the platforms of all candidates and the issues facing both communities to which she is connected.

When asked what she feels is the most pressing current issue facing her tribe today, Barbara Vicknair is quick to answer that it is the Cherokee Constitution. She has familiar ties to the tribal constitution as her Great-great-great-Grandfather John Owle worked closely with Lloyd Welch in constructing the 1868 Cherokee Constitution. Vicknair remains excited and energized by her work on the present day committee to reformulate the constitution in hopes of it becoming a major referendum item in the future for the Cherokee. Vicknair currently serves on the Murphy Town Council in her second term. The future remains alluring and she hopes to one day turn her political involvement toward a tribal position as a possible contender for a tribal council member seat with the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

I would like to thank Barbara Vicknair for her time and interest in assisting me by providing this insightful interview. It is women like her that inspire and encourage our youth to become active participants in both, tribal and non-Native political activism.

-Written by We R Native blog author Constance Owl, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in western North Carolina. constanceamity@gmail.com

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