By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Ghandi
We are in great need of an overhaul of government protocol. I am not talking about the people who fill the seats of our elected posts. If there are issues with a tribal leader, you and I have the fix we need in a voting booth (but even that has come into question). I am talking about process and law. Because our legislature was set up on a turnstile of two-year rotations with no stagger of terms, we stay in constant turmoil. This is not a recent happening. We have been at odds with language and interpretation in our law for decades.
The Cherokee Code needs a clean-up. Recently, the Tribal Council enacted legislation to do just that. The problem is that there was some vagueness about timelines and reporting. Should there be at least monthly progress reports on how the clean-up is progressing? How do we even know that anything is being done? We have seen in the past other legislation, passed by Council and approved by Executive, that just falls by the wayside.
The pattern is, in some cases, to wait long enough that an issue falls out of the public eye and then it is no longer an issue. Remember the enrollment audit? Heard anything about it lately? Not quite a couple of years ago, our government directed that the actions of Council members and Executive administrations for the past ten years be audited and investigated. Do you recall any updates on that investigation?
Leaving issues like this hanging makes for gossip, innuendo, and speculation. If nothing is being done wrong, the reports should be presented that say so, so that we may unify and move on to more important things. If something is wrong, the reports should be presented so that we can deal with it and, unify, and move on as well. Most, if not all, of our leaders have promised transparency in government. Not getting updates on enacted legislation like the Code clean-up is like having dirty windows.
For a window to be transparent, you either wash the window or open it. Simple requests for information deemed public by our laws sometimes requires a bit of hoop jumping, prodding, begging, nagging…well, you get the idea. Access to information continues to be a challenge in tribal government, as it is for many news organizations across Indian Country. Politicians typically have an arm’s length relationship with the media, even one that is tribally-owned. It is good in a way that they recognize that a free press is good for the people. And, it is bad in a way because, at times, there is a reluctance to share information when dealing with a subject that may be damaging politically.
Yes, we do have a Public Information law, but it is loosely interpreted by some in our government. If an official doesn’t want to address an issue or release a document, they simply ignore calls and emails. There is a 15-day window for response, before you may proceed with any additional efforts to get a document or information. If an official refuses to provide the information for whatever reason, the only recourse is to take it to court, which is expensive, time-consuming, and not practical for any entity owned by the Tribe.
Some community members have been working on a draft constitution that they are getting ready for public input as we go to press. They have spent months deliberating and researching; looking at old Cherokee governing documents and work done by previous community committees. Their research and materials go back decades in some cases, centuries in others. A good constitution will go a long way to bringing our laws into the 21st century. Our ancestors gave us a document, the Charter, that has brought us this far. It is time for a new generation of Cherokee people to bring law current and relevant to Cherokee today.
We have talked about staggered and longer terms before. Some have suggested that they do not want longer terms because they feel that if (speaking specifically about Tribal Council) an official is not doing the job, the people should not have to wait to vote them out. I would suggest that you would have less trouble with an official not doing the right thing if the term was longer. A two-year term keeps our government is a constant state of flux.
Big economic and community development opportunities need consistent guidance and leadership. Our political leaders would be able to come off the campaign trail and vote their conscience more effectively because they would not have to be in constant campaign mode with longer terms. A four-year term would be a much more effective term of office for our Tribal Council seats. Staggering those terms, so that only half of the seats were up for election every two years would also provide stability and experience retention in our government. The people should have the right of recall for those who violate their oath to the Cherokee community, regardless of the length of term. These are two things we need to do now. It is not necessary or practical to put off needed governing change until we get a constitution in place. These are things we could do now.
Our governing documents, both Charter (or Constitution) and Code, must reflect the will of the people in a clear, concise way. Conflicting and ambiguous language must be addressed. It is up to us to make it a priority for our tribal leaders. We must make it clear that it is such a priority that it can’t wait one more election cycle. We must be the change we want to see.