Some of the Cherokee Nation's electric vehicle fleet. (Photo by Kristi Eaton)

The Cherokee Nation and an official with the U.S. Department of Transportation recently signed a first-of-its-kind agreement between the Tribal Nation and a federal agency that gives the Nation the ability to plan and oversee its own road construction planning and transit projects without having to seek federal permission and oversight.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg signed the compact. Buttigieg was not in attendance at the signing ceremony event due to testing positive for Covid-19. Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg signed as a witness during the June 7, 2022, event on the Cherokee Nation reservation. 

“Thanks to the Cherokee Nation’s leadership, every Tribe in the country now has a model that it can pursue in its own self-governance agreements,” Trottenberg said during the ceremony. 

Trottenberg also announced $120 million in funding for Tribal communities to increase safety on roadways through the Tribal Transportation Program Safety Fund, made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg speaks at an event on the Cherokee Nation reservation. Trottenberg was visiting as part of a new compact agreement between the Tribe and the federal government to view the Tribe’s electric vehicles and infrastructure. (Photo by Kristi Eaton)

“We’re facing a real tragic time on American roadways,” she said. “Last year, we recorded the highest number of roadway fatalities in many years – nearly 43,000 people lost their lives on the roadways. And tragically, the fatality rate on roadways is double in Tribal communities as it is in the rest of the country.”

While rural transportation is important to the economy, Hoskin Jr. said, it’s also important to the everyday citizen of the Cherokee Nation – the largest Tribal Nation by citizenship in the U.S. – to be able to access healthcare, get to school, and get to work. 

It’s also about saving and preserving the Cherokee way of life, he said. 

“Part of our mission at the Cherokee Nation is to make sure, particularly these small towns, these rural areas, these communities that the Cherokee people founded after our forced removal – that we founded before there was a state of Oklahoma – to make sure these communities survive,” Hoskin Jr. said. 

Transportation has a direct effect on keeping language and culture thriving and the small communities alive, he said, speaking during the ceremony. 

“It’s not enough just to say we need to build roads and bridges and have rural transit and have more secure modes of transportation because it’s good for the economy – that’s important. But for the Cherokee people, this is about saving communities,” Hoskin Jr. added. 

During the ceremony, Trottenberg, Hoskin Jr. and other Tribal and federal representatives rode on an electric bus to a nearby bridge project. The Cherokee Nation built one of the first solar canopies in Oklahoma at its headquarters in Tahlequah. The structure is used to charge Cherokee Nation’s electric fleet vehicles and electric cars driven by staff and visitors to the Tribal complex. The Tribe has two electric transit buses and new charging stations built to accommodate the vehicles.

“There’s this opportunity not only to provide safety and efficiency but also tell a story to these young people about energy issues in this country,” Hoskin Jr. said about the buses. “And what we can do collectively to reduce our dependence on forms of energy that are really getting in scarce supply and are having an impact on the environment.”

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