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Dick Lay (left), Chuck Hoskin Jr. and David Walkingstick, candidates for Cherokee Nation principal chief, debate at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah on Tuesday. In the front row is debate moderator Dylan Goforth, editor of The Frontier.  SHEILA STOGSDILL/For the Tulsa World

TAHLEQUAH — Poultry houses and health care were among the topics discussed Tuesday night during a debate to see who will be the next leader of the Cherokee Nation.

The two-hour debate was held at Northeastern State University before approximately 250 people.

Candidates to replace Bill John Baker, who is ineligible to run for a third consecutive term as principal chief, are Chuck Hoskin Jr. of Vinita, Dick Lay of Ochelata and David Walkingstick of Tahlequah.

Hoskin resigned as the tribe’s secretary of state in order to run for the principal chief position. He previously served six years on the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council.

Lay, a rancher, is finishing his second term on the Tribal Council.

Walkingstick, a former director of Indian Education for Muskogee Public Schools, is also finishing his second term on the Tribal Council.

While the candidates were light on specifics about how to solve the Cherokee Nation’s health care problems, all the candidates agreed that acquiring a sufficient number of physicians is a priority.

Oklahoma State University is partnering with the Cherokee Nation to establish a medical school in Tahlequah. The OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation will focus on educating primary care physicians who have an interest in providing care to native and rural populations in Oklahoma.

“We have to go get them,” Lay said, referring to doctors. “The OSU program is good, but we got to go get them.”

“All is not perfect in Cherokee Nation health care,” he said. “We have to do better.”

“Improving health care has been the cornerstone of my campaign,” Hoskin said. “I want to put dollars into scholarships. I want to see Cherokees taking care of Cherokees.”

Walkingstick referred to eight-to-10-hour wait times to see a physician. “This is unacceptable,” he said.

In response to the environmental and quality-of-life issues created by the proliferation of giant poultry houses in Delaware and Adair counties, Walkingstick said he would like to see the Cherokee Nation sue the poultry companies that have built them.

Some fear that poultry farms can use so much water that the supply for others in the area is reduced and that pollution from the farms can seep into water supplies. With a nod to those concerns, Walkingstick said, “Water is our life supply; water is medicine.”

“You can’t sue everybody,” Lay said. “We need to work with the state.”

The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture passed rules in February establishing setbacks and other more stringent guidelines for poultry houses, and a Coordinating Council on Poultry Growth was formed last year in a cooperative effort between the state and the tribe.

Hoskin worked on a statewide moratorium on permits for building poultry houses in eastern Oklahoma.

“It’s bad for the local economy to have this much of a concentration of (poultry) houses,” Hoskin said.

Other issues debated were the Cherokee Nation’s gaming compact with the state, which is set to expire next year; keeping the Cherokee language a strong building block for future generations; and a constitutional amendment that would protect freedom of the tribal press.

Meredith Frailey of Locust Grove and Bryan Warner of Sallisaw are running for the deputy chief office.

The election is set for June 1.

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