Interview conducted by Josemiguel Gomez with the assistance of Austin Headlee
A few weeks ago, it was announced that Chairman Joseph Byrd of Quapaw Nation had filed candidacy for Cherokee Council. The thought of a sitting Business Committee Member of Quapaw Nation running for office of another Native nation in the middle of their term brings questions for many. One of the biggest questions – is this legal? According to the 1956 Governing Resolution and further review of the 2004 Election Ordinance, filing for candidacy does not warrant any action of the Grievance Committee or Quapaw Courts. In essence, no law has been broken.
That will of course change should Chairman Byrd get elected to Cherokee Council. At such time, he would have to resign his seat with Quapaw Nation or resign his candidacy with Cherokee Nation. The next question that sits on the tip of many tongues revolves around why Chairman Byrd decided to file less than halfway through his second term. For that question and many others, the Quapaw Post sat down with Chairman Byrd.
The Cherokee Phoenix first reported that you had filed for Cherokee Council, Is it true?
Yes, I can confirm that last week I filed my candidacy for District three of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council.
What was the initial train of thought that drove you to file for Cherokee Council?
I think it would be similar to the train of thought of anyone else. The first thought is, do I think I could handle the aspects of the position that are needed, am I qualified? I know I can and I know I am.
Beyond that [initial thought] is something more tied to our culture. I was always told that the people will let you know when it is your time to serve. When that day arrives, your elders will come to you and they will tell you, it is your time to step up, we need you. That is what happened in 2020 when I ran for Chairman of Quapaw Nation. I had overwhelming support from the tribal elders of the Quapaw community. Here again in 2023, I have had overwhelming support from the Cherokee people asking me and telling me that I am needed, that it is my time.
Let’s look at this from the Quapaw point of view. You are the current Chairman and you have a year and four months left on your term. Many people are asking why you would file with your current commitment to Quapaw Nation.
It is not a decision that I came to lightly, mainly because I acknowledge and understand that the Quapaw people have placed their faith in my leadership. I want people to know that this was not a hasty decision. I thought about it, I prayed about it, and it seemed like the right time.
If you take a look at my first term of office – from 2020 all the way through the summer of 2022 – we had a global pandemic. We dealt with issues such as Covid spreading rampant, having supply chain issues and economical issues, and that transitioned into inflation, job loss, job insecurity. I feel that during that initial term I led and navigated our tribal government and our enterprises through a very challenging time in history.
In my first term, we were able to accomplish many things within the span of 24 months. We finished a large gaming project in Arkansas [at the height of Covid] and we upgraded that property and our other large gaming property, Downstream. From there, we were able to improve [EBITDA] and use it as a catalyst to refinance $675 million in casino debt, resulting in saving thousands of dollars of interest expense each day. If you look at that first term in office, it is hard to argue against the success. I say with sincerity that I did my best.
This second term, I have had to face other challenges – not necessarily external but more internal challenges, and I don’t want to spend my time talking too negatively on that.
Another impetus that made me decide to file for candidacy with Cherokee Nation was the passing of Mike Shawnee. The impact that Mike’s life [and sudden passing] had on me personally, culturally and professionally… that is something that I think about daily.
I had the privilege of speaking to Mike the day that he passed. In that conversation, he was telling me that I need to hold accountable the people that need to be held accountable, and that at the end of the day, the only thing that is really relevant is your family and the love that you share with your family.
Mike was a significant loss for me on a personal level. On a business level, his passing changed the dynamics of the Business Committee. With his loss, our numbers went from six serving members down to five. Our Governing documents call for seven elected officials and yet there have been consistent vacancies during my time in office. There’s really only been a handful of months where we had a full Business Committee in the past three years. Still, we have managed to accomplish a significant number of achievements.
So again, With Mike's passing, not only did I lose that mentor, and that guidance from an elder tribesman, who was revered and respected in the tribal community, but with that I lost the ability to be most effective. He had a way of persuading and he had a way of explaining ideas and initiatives to the rest of the Business Committee. Because Mike is no longer here, I find myself in direct conflict with all but one of the remaining Business Committee Members. It has become very divisive and yet even though there are Members that oppose me, I still feel that overwhelming support in the tribal community.
What message would you like to send to the citizens of Quapaw Nation?
To all those that have supported me, those who voted for me and even those that have just been open to what I have had to say as an elected leader, I would like to say this:
Last April, I lost the greatest piece of my identity in my grandmother. She was a cornerstone of this tribe and in this community as a storyteller, culture keeper, an artist, all of those things. The efforts that I have led throughout my tenure as Chairman were in hope of making her proud and serving the same people in the same community that she too, devoted herself. In her last days, she could not even remember my name and I think about that. I think about the legacy that she left and I think about the legacy that I am leaving and it is quite short compared to hers. However, I feel like it has been impactful leading during Covid, during a financial crisis, during the recognition of our reservation and all of the other things that Quapaw Nation has seen in the past three years. It has been an incredible journey and I am extremely grateful for the support of the people that have followed me, those that have placed their faith in my leadership abilities. I want them to know that I will always be a voice for them. Even if I am not the elected Chairman of Quapaw Nation, I will still be active in this community. I can never be done with this community because of who I am, because of who my grandmother and mother were and because of the blood that flows in my line. I am still excited about the potential of where our tribe goes from here, because there are still many great things on the horizon for us. With our casino debt being eliminated at an astronomical rate, the conversation of per capita will be coming very soon. We continue to make advancements through technology and the services that our tribal citizens have has never been more effective. There are many good days ahead for the Quapaw people and I will always support that, I will always advocate for these people, regardless of my title. I want to thank everyone that has had something nice to say, words of encouragement and gratitude… It is not often as elected leaders that we get to hear those positive comments coming from members of the community. We signed up to hear the challenges and concerns, making this a very tough job that not everyone is cut out for, but those smiles, words of gratitude, of thanks, they mean a lot. I have a profound respect for those that have supported me along this journey, and the journey is still on. In closing, instead of focusing on one individual, I think we as a tribe need to focus on the greater collective and always look towards the horizon.
Currently, Chairman Byrd’s candidacy is being challenged by another candidate for Cherokee Council. The hearing is set to take place Feb. 27, to decide on if Chairman Byrd can remain a candidate for Cherokee Council. Chairman Byrd is scheduled to attend the hearing and fly to Washington D.C. shortly after to meet up with his counterparts in pursuance of the appropriation of the Bear lawsuit.