Courtesy Cora Cowan Watts
Cara Cowan Watts (right) and Christy Kingfisher at the Cherokee National Holiday Powwo 2012.

Cara Cowan Watts, Councilwoman: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh
July 25, 2013


In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of the Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

My name is Cara Cowan Watts. I am an elected member of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council.  

Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or nickname?

ᎨᏩ (Gewa) is the Cherokee approximation of Cara.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

The Tribal Council per the Cherokee Nation Constitution has the power to establish laws which it shall deem necessary and proper for the good of the nation, and conducts other business which will further the interests of the Cherokee Nation and its citizenship. Basically, the council has the power of the purse strings with approval of the budget and any monthly budget modifications as well as the passage of laws (Acts and Resolutions).

In addition to the formal roles defined by the Constitution of the Cherokee Nation, I am in the community every day meeting constituents, attending meetings, developing relationships with city, county, state, and federal government officials and entities. Without staff to assist, I answer several hundred e-mails, Facebook messages, snail mail letters, phone calls, and Tweets each day. Each councilperson serves approximately 7,500 people without staff assistance in our 17-person Legislative Branch.

To learn more about me, people may visit my personal website. I am active on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Pinterest. I use social media to share what I do on a day-to-day basis as a tribal councilwoman.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation? 

My Cherokee mother and maternal grandparents ensured I knew who I was as a Cherokee citizen since my earliest memories. My family instilled in me a sense of responsibility to participate in my government by being informed and voting. I have voted in every tribal election since I turned 18 years old, even when I was living outside of the Cherokee Nation. My greatest tie to the Cherokee Nation is my Clan, passed down through my Cherokee mother, Beverly Cowan.

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

Wilma Mankiller was significant to me. She broke down any remaining barriers for Cherokee women in our modern leadership. Chief Mankiller assisted me in my early campaigns by endorsing me, advising me, and attending many of my campaign events. I am thankful for the time I was able to spend with her and the candid advice she gave me at critical times in my tenure on the Tribal Council.

Wilma assisted me with my public life of service to the tribe, but my Cherokee mother, Beverly Cowan, and my extra Cherokee mother, the late Marti Aleshire, gave me the day-to-day advice I needed as a young woman and professional.

I have always been attracted to strong Indian women and especially strong Cherokee women (and men) who continue to help raise me, so to speak, and make sure I am on a path which serves the entire Cherokee Nation and not just a few. I have a number of mentors throughout Indian country who have made me a stronger person and a stronger tribal leader.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so who? 

I am an eighth-generation resident of Rogers County, Oklahoma—or what is now known as Rogers County, Oklahoma. I am a direct descendant of Old Settler Cherokee Chief John Rogers, who lived in the Cooweescoowee District of the Cherokee Nation, which included what is now Rogers County prior to Oklahoma statehood. Rogers was the nephew of former Cherokee Nation Chief Tahlonteeskee and Chief John Jolly, who served the nation prior to removal on the Trail of Tears. Chief John Rogers is buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

I am a direct descendent of Tiawah, Indian Territory, resident Dempsey Fields Coker, councilor and solicitor for the Cooweescoowee District in the late 1870s. One of my ancestors is Scottish trader Ludovick Grant, who married into the Cherokee Nation and makes me part of the Scottish Clan Grant. My great-great-grandfather was Danish and helped keep the Oaks Indian Mission open by writing to the Danish Lutheran Church and asking them to take control when the Moravians had to abandon the mission. The Oaks Mission is still a critical organization within the Cherokee Nation today.

Where is your nation located?

The Cherokee Nation is located in all or part of 14 counties in northeastern Oklahoma, and our tribal jurisdiction (which is not a reservation) is approximately 7,000 square miles. I live in Rogers County. The tribe’s capital is Tahlequah, Oklahoma, which is in Cherokee County and more than one hour from Rogers County. All of Cherokee, Sequoyah, Adair, Nowata, Craig, and Mayes counties are within the Cherokee Nation, and a portion of Delaware, Rogers, Ottawa, McIntosh, Muskogee, Tulsa, Wagoner and Washington counties are within the Cherokee Nation.

Where was your nation originally from?

Cherokee lands included parts of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Today, only three Cherokee governments remain: the Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.

Does the Cherokee Nation have a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

Cherokees still have traditional ceremonial grounds with traditional chiefs and other leadership separate from the public tribal government.

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

The Trail of Tears, followed closely by the U.S. Civil War, almost destroyed our tribe through epidemic diseases, internal and external war, massive land loss, forced removal, allotment (the Dawes Act), and the breakup of Cherokee families. It is amazing we are still here and a testament to the resiliency of the Cherokee Nation.

Approximately how many citizens are in your tribe?

As of the 2012 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR, pages 109–110), we have approximately 318,000 tribal citizens registered with the Tribal Registrar.

What are the criteria to become a citizen?

To be eligible for Cherokee Nation citizenship, individuals must provide documents connecting them to an enrolled direct ancestor who is listed on the Dawes Roll with a blood degree. CDIB [Certificate of Decree of Indian Blood]/tribal citizenship is traced through natural parents. In cases of adoption, CDIB/citizenship must be proven through a biological parent to an ancestor registered on the Dawes Roll.

The Tribal Registrar maintains a Cherokee Nation citizenship webpage to provide information and services.


To read the full interview with Cara Cowan Watts, Councilwoman visit the NMAI series here.

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