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Governance: Lessons from the Cherokee

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Joseph G. Jarret
July 21, 2023


Located in Cherokee, North Carolina, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (My communications with tribal members revealed that the Cherokee people prefer the term “Indian”), were once part of a much larger Cherokee Nation population. However, when the Trail of Tears was mandated, and forced removal and relocation were directed by the U.S. government and then President Andrew Jackson, the Cherokee Tribe became divided into what is known today as the Cherokee Nation, consisting of the United Kituwah Band, located in Oklahoma, and the Eastern Band, made up of those who remained in North Carolina’s Qualla Boundary (sometimes called the Cherokee Indian Reservation). This piece will explore the self-governing aspects of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee.


When I discuss federal, state and local government law with my University of Tennessee, public administration students, they have little trouble understanding the power and authority of the federal and 50 state governments, as well as counties, cities, parishes and local boards of education. What is consistently a mystery to them, however, is tribal governance. Because the University of Tennessee is only 75 miles from the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, it is the laws, rules and regulations of the Cherokee I will discuss. The Cherokee is a sovereign nation, with its own laws, elections, government and institutions. Though it certainly has relationships with the United States federal government and North Carolina and its general population, they are, nevertheless, self-governed and autonomous.

Tribal Law

American Indian tribal law is distinct from federal American Indian law. While federal Indian laws govern the relationship between tribes and the federal and state governments, tribal laws cover the inner workings of specific tribes. Each tribe has its own laws and government, which are structured similarly to the federal three-branch system. For example, the Cherokee have an executive division, headed by a chief and a vice chief, a legislature division or 12-member Tribal council and a judicial branch or Tribal court. The Tribal Court is headed by a Chief Justice, two full-time Associate Judges, two Associate Appellate Justices and numerous Temporary Judges/Justices, all of whom have been nominated by the Principal Chief and confirmed by the Tribal Council. Tribal laws are developed by tribes or Indian nations and apply to their members and to individuals within tribal territories. The reach of tribal law beyond the Cherokee people was expanded by the Tribal Law & Order Act (TLOA), which helps to address crime in tribal communities, and places a strong emphasis on decreasing violence against women in those communities.

Enacted in 2010, the TLOA encourages the hiring of more law enforcement officers for Indian lands and provides additional tools to address critical public safety needs. It also encourages development of more effective prevention programs to combat alcohol and drug abuse among at-risk youth.


Like most governmental entities, the Cherokee are empowered to enact various laws in the form of ordinances. Ordinances of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee are codified by the Municipal Codes Corporation, a codifier of legal documents for local governments in the United States in which most public administrators and attorneys find themselves engrossed from time to time. The ordinances of the Cherokee contain rules and regulations not unlike other public entities. Topics include:

  • Civil procedure
  • Taxation
  • Professions and occupations
  • Zoning/land use
  • Utilities
  • Judicial and Juvenile Code, to name but a few

There are also laws unique to the Cherokee people, including, but not limited to:

  • Tribal gambling
  • Tribal government
  • Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority, and,
  • Skeletal remains and burial site preservation

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990

Regarding the proper care and treatment of Cherokee skeletal remains and burial site preservation mentioned above, Native American peoples across the United States petitioned Congress to pass the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 NAGPRA). Since 1990, Federal law has provided for the repatriation and disposition of certain Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony. Currently, the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum curates the remains of about 6000 prehistoric Native Americans that have been recovered during excavations by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Museum’s staff work closely with the Cherokee to ensure repatriation of Native American Ancestral Remains and cultural items back to their proper cultural communities.


Despite some important distinctions, the Cherokee’s governing body generally acts as any other legislative body when it comes to creating laws, authorizing expenditures, appropriating funds and conducting oversight of activities carried out by the chief executive and tribal government employees. What is unique, however, is the fact that the Cherokee people have been self-governing long before Europeans, with their own notions of governance, set foot on Cherokee lands. To quote one tribal historian, “The Cherokee people have existed since time immemorial” a fact that benefits us all.

Author: Dr. Joseph G. Jarret is a public sector manager, attorney and mediator who has served four different local government entities as chief legal counsel and who lectures full-time on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is a former United States Army Armored Cavalry Officer with service overseas, and is a recipient of the Gordon Johnston Award for Excellence in Public Management, and holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice, a Master’s in Public Administration, a Juris Doctorate, and the Ph.D. in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies from the University of Tennessee.

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