By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
You have little in personal rights under the Charter and Governing Document of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, except for the right to vote. And, even that is limited to 1) Voting for elected officials, and 2) Voting on issues as approved for you to vote on by Tribal Council. And, you get conditional protection from property reclamation.
Number two seems to be the most problematic issue in our governance. The push for getting a tribal constitution predates the current Charter of the Tribe. I don’t know what the problems were “back in the day” that prevented a constitution from coming before the people. Today’s issues are that current government leadership may not think the draft document will serve the people as effectively as the current Charter. There were even comments that the leaders fear, and the people should fear, the proposed constitution.
The apathetic atmosphere around constitution discussion would seem to lend credence to their thoughts. After a couple of years of meetings, educational presentations at community clubs, and work sessions with Tribal Council, few members of the community have stepped forward to support the effort.
Recently, I was able to have a quick chat with one of our tribal council representatives about apathy. This leader’s take on it certainly is valid and worth consideration. This leader stated that maybe the reason tribal members weren’t rallying behind the change is that they are happy and satisfied with the way things are. Perhaps we are just so comfortable that we don’t want anything to rock the boat enough to have us give up our comfort and strive for more. Maybe we like being taken care of, and we are willing to give up control of our government to do so.
We speak of historical trauma and rightfully so. Indigenous peoples of North America experienced the type of genocidal actions that have been condemned around the world in modern culture. Our tribal ancestors paid a heavy price to ensure the continuation of native peoples. But, the Indian Wars may not have been the worst of the atrocities that happened to Indians.
The invading Europeans conquered the tribes, then moved the survivors to reservations; segregation camps where civilized society could be protected from the “savage” behaviors – where assimilation training could be administered that would eliminate or subvert Indian cultures, traditions, languages, and religions. If native peoples refused to absorb and convert, then they would not be allowed to roam freely in the new civilized society of America. Sure, tribes may have their governments so long as those did not stray too far from federal government laws. The atrocities didn’t end with physical mistreatment and stripping of culture. They covertly set about stripping native tribes of their dignity. By relegating tribes to reservations, usually land that would serve no or little economic value, and telling tribal peoples that if they were compliant, that they would be “taken care of”, or given food, shelter, and have their medical needs attended to, they were slowly removing the pride and dignity of a tens of thousands year old people. All we needed to do is disengage, to “stand down,” and we would have provision. In other words, be apathetic, and you won’t have any worries.
And there it is. It is my opinion that some of us have become so accustomed as a people to being “took care of” that we forget the proud history of a free, indigenous people. I have had many people try to describe to me what it means to be Cherokee, and I get different answers from each person that educates me. I guess that there is no one answer and it is probably an amalgam of all. Foundationally, being Cherokee is a matter of the heart. In each one of us with Cherokee blood, there is the DNA of a proud, intelligent people and culture; a people destined to lead and not be converted. The appearance of this apathetic nature is not part of that DNA. We have learned it, and we need to unlearn it quickly.
Some parts of the assimilation process may be irreversible. It is doubtful that there will ever be a day when Cherokee will be the first language of most of our children. It would be on the level of a miracle if we put down our Big Macs, fries, and Cokes to picked up organic, homegrown foods as our primary sources of sustenance. We are too bought into their system in some areas to turn back.
Then, there are fundamental parts of our culture we may save if we choose. But, we must choose. And, if we are going to choose, we must have control. The current governing document affords the Eastern Band population very little direct control of destinies. Civil rights are not mentioned in the Charter. Things that are in the Charter, as in the taking of a census, are supposedly unchangeable without a vote of the people. The Tribal census is supposed to be a foundational necessity and right of the people. But, elected officials deemed a census as a non-essential matter for you without your input, without a referendum.
The issue is systemic, lest someone thinks I am condemning our current elected officials. We have known our law for several election cycles required the census, yet it was either ignored or put off when the time came. And, it is impossible for us, as a people, to address it, saving casting votes for or against candidates who advocate for continuing to put it off. Unfortunately, in our apathy, I am not sure we will even make it a consideration when we go to the polls. Our needs are being met, so why bother, right?
An adequately vetted and executed constitution provides a framework for the governance of the people, by the people, and for the people. It codifies the rights of the people. It frames the role of public servants and service. A constitution would help eliminate the confusing and contradictory code of laws by which we now operate. A constitution would replace the Charter, not the code of laws. Once a constitution is in place, the code of laws would be amended to conform to it.
By now, you have figured out that I am a proponent of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians establishing a constitution. That is not to say that I think the people want one. I do not proport to speak for the people as some do. I think it would be a tragedy for future generations of our people to see that we had a significant decision before us that would affect them, but we could not get enough people interested to have a serious discussion and ultimately a choice. This is certain, a constitution for the EBCI will happen or not happen because of me and you, either through our action or inaction.
We are a great nation of people with financial resources that rival that of some large cities in America. We have a duty to our citizens, past-present-future, to be engaged. Our Tribe has gained so much. We are looking to protect the future for the next generations of tribal leaders. I hope there is a day when every citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians feels that they are essential to the process of making a better Cherokee. As members of this Tribe, each of us should take ownership and responsibility for its future.