Where does one go when one has reached a career pinnacle? For Michell Hicks ’87, the answer would seem to be the top of the next peak, trading one position as chief for another and expanding his work on behalf of Native Americans beyond his own people. Serving three terms of four years each as principal chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, Hicks decided not to seek a fourth term in 2015 in order to spend more time with family. He recently became CEO of his own financial consulting firm, Chief Strategy Group.
“I wanted to chase a dream that wasn’t possible with a political career,” Hicks said. “Something I could hand down to my children.” Hicks, his wife, Marsha, and their children Savannah, Noah, Lynsey, Amaya and Marlee live in the Painttown community on the Qualla Boundary, where he has built a lodge next to their home to serve as a headquarters for the business.
In addition to offering a sleeping loft for traveling business guests, it is also a kind of small museum of Cherokee crafts and culture, from locally created baskets and pottery to the hunting trophies that ring the walls next to the ceiling – some of which were hunted with centuries-old ceremonies.
Among the memorabilia are some children’s books. “These are some of the things I am most proud of, that the tribe did while I served as principal chief – a series of 10 children’s books telling simple stories of our culture in the Cherokee language,” Hicks said. “Local artists illustrated them; we published them and distributed them to seven of our schools as gifts. I even got to read one to a kindergarten class.”
Hicks is a product of those schools. After graduating from Cherokee High School, he earned an associate degree in accounting at Southwestern Community College, and then a bachelor’s degree in business management at Western Carolina University. He had been familiar with the campus for a long time, thanks to the Upward Bound children’s math and science program that WCU hosted for many years.
“I had a history with Upward Bound starting when I was 14 and was on campus every summer,” Hicks said. “I got to know professors, counselors who understood that Native peoples can have trouble adjusting to a big campus; we’re home-driven. They helped me to see what campus life was about, from the classroom to socially. It was a good experience for me – a good fit.”
Attaining the title of certified public accountant, he began serving as assistant business manager for the tribe in 1987, then became finance officer for the EBCI’s Qualla Housing Authority in 1990. After working as a senior accountant for a private firm in Boston, Philadelphia and New York, he became the tribe’s executive director of budget and finance.
“There were grant compliance needs and an opportunity to create capital improvement processes,” Hicks said. “It gave me a good idea what needed to be done as principal chief.” During his first term as head of the tribe, in December 2003, he created an annual report to the more than 15,000 registered members of the EBCI. “It was a matter of transparency, and it worked out well,” Hicks said. “We began to grow substantially.”
His term was marked by several major advances in Cherokee and other areas: the expansion of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, as well as the construction of the Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel in Murphy, a tribal justice center and a hospital, development of the Sequoyah National Golf Course and the expansion of an accredited Cherokee language immersion school.
In addition, a housing program and the tribe’s social services programs have benefited from the $250 million increase in government revenues during Hicks’ tenure as chief, along with a program providing full funding for higher education.
“We wanted to say to students, ‘Why not try to be great? Bring back good grades and we’ll incentivize that.’ We wanted to apply the resources to the daily lives of members of the tribe and neighbors in the region.” Hicks said.
Among Hicks’ most important legacies is his length of office, said Chris Cooper, head of WCU’s Department of Political Science and Public Affairs. “The political environment today is one where voters are suspect of incumbents and suspect of politicians more generally, yet Chief Hicks was able to secure an extraordinary three terms of office. This is a monumental achievement for any elected official and speaks to his attention to constituency service,” Cooper said.
Hicks feels that he now has the opportunity to serve the needs of the EBCI and extend that service to other Native peoples. One of the working outreaches of his Chief Strategy Group is called Gen7 Healthcare, a partnership he is forming with other firms. “It’s an initiative within our health system to use the tax advantages we have and coordination in purchasing to serve health care needs outside of our own in the region. The results would be better coverage, more jobs – and everyone benefits,” Hicks said.
“The name comes from a principle in Native thought to ‘take care of seven generations,’ ” he said. “We hope to accomplish things that will be here for a long time. I ask, ‘what are we doing for way down the road? Will our daily dealings matter in 50 years?’ ”
As one of three WCU alumni honored at Homecoming ceremonies in 2015, Hicks accepted the Professional Achievement Award from Alumni Association President Frances Owl-Smith ’83, who said of him, “His tenure as the top leader for the Cherokee people turned out to be a period of spectacular advancement for the tribe in terms of economic development and cultural advancement.
“The Cherokee people needed a strong, smart and discerning leader with great vision at the helm as they entered the 21st century, and you answered the call,” Owl-Smith told Hicks.