COMMENTARY: Is it public or is it not?

by Jan 4, 2021OPINIONS





The times they are a changing. There was a recent discussion by Tribal Council that took place regarding the efforts to approve tribal dollars of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for use in the purchase of a commercial casino in Indiana. It was a heated discussion. There were multiple issues discussed, but the one that stuck out in my mind was the issue of community education and information. 

There had been a closed work session before a special session was called in December to attempt to approve the funding. It was a session that the public would not have known about except that during the special session, some of the Council members referenced it to inquire about the timing of the information being released, and the lack of time to consult with their constituencies about the ins and outs of the legislation, and the expenditure.

As has been the case in the past, this purchase has many different elements in it that require negotiation with an outside entity. It also involves dealing with another government and abiding by their laws and gaming regulations. All this to establish a new revenue stream with comparable return on investment to the Indian gaming operation the Tribe owns and operates. 

So far, the Tribe has not been able to acquire or develop any new businesses under the Kituwah LLC with that kind of earning potential. In fact, from its formation, the entity’s leadership had indicated that fast, large immediate return was not their goal, instead opting for slow, sustainable growth with return on investment more likely in the five to 15 percent range. 

With the eminent threats, perceived or factual, (there was even debate about whether there is an eminent threat), the Tribe is looking for the big, quick returns that potentially are only achievable through gaming. Even if there is not an eminent threat, at the rate of municipal spend that the community is accustomed to, the Tribe’s needs or desires are once again straining its ability to keep up with income. 

In the open sessions, the Tribe expressed concerns about how much information was going out over the air to the public. Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed indicated that One Feather reporting on the special session had been picked up by social media and press nationally. He noted that, because of the discussion being aired, not only were the current negotiations potentially jeopardized, but that the Tribe’s gaming strategy was public for all the Tribe’s competitors to see. Some Council members countered that they could not support anything that they could not explain to the community and explanation meant that the public, at least the tribal public, needed to be able to understand what the Tribe is doing. 

At some point, a plan was devised to broadcast the discussion in a “quasi-private” manner. It was determined that, using current technology, the community could participate or at least listen in to the information via third party virtual meeting applications. While it would not accommodate anyone, who didn’t have a smartphone or computer, at least more of the tribal public would be able to participate, possibly even ask questions in a “public hearing” style format. 

The turnaround time was quick, and it required the community to seek a link or code from their Tribal Council representative or the Principal Chief’s Office. I am not sure whether they were flooded with requests or there was some other reason, but when I requested that information from my Council members, it was met with silence. The email did not receive a response from either. 

Some tribal members indicated that their experience in making the request was the same. I did, however, receive the link from the Office of the Principal Chief. Along with the link, there was instruction. The tribal government considered this meeting, I think officially, a closed session, because the instruction was that because I am a tribal member, I could participate in the meeting, but as a member of the tribal media, I was not to report on anything that happened or was discussed in the session. 

Okay. So, I get that we, the Tribe, are trying to inform the tribal community and minimize the release of important negotiation points and strategy to the general public, our potential competitors, and to those who might leverage the information to get lucrative and obsessive jobs at our expense. If the Chief and Council felt that using this tool was the answer to the question of getting the Cherokee people informed without compromising confidentiality, then so be it. 

Then, just before the start of the meeting, there was an announcement that the session would also be available on Cherokee Cablevision channel 28. This is the part I could not understand. While channel 28 is on a cable system, most communities do not consider their community cable as private. In fact, just like any other community cable provider, potential subscribers do not have to identify if they are tribal members in order to subscribe. In fact, local businesses like hotels, restaurants, bars, and other retail stores who cater to customers of all races and creeds, may publicly display the tribal cable channel. And while the event was not widely publicized, anyone who might have been flipping through the channels at the time the session went live would have been able to listen to any of the supposedly confidential information that was discussed. 

As a member of this Tribe, I understand and support the efforts of the government to negotiate and strategize on my behalf, even if it means that there are details that I may not know in order to achieve a better life for me. I started to say I think all of us agree on that, but you have your own mind, and I don’t speak for the people. I just speak for me. But, as one of the people who is charged with reporting the activities of government to you, it gives me pause to be told that I cannot provide you with information because it is confidential and only for individual tribal member consumption, and then have it basically broadcast on public media for any non-tribal member, or journalist to see. Outside reporters would not be bound by tribal law to abstain from discussing the details of anything they saw on channel 28. In my opinion, once that decision was made to air it on a public outlet, the meeting was no longer closed or private; and the One Feather should not have been bound in its reporting. 

I know time was crunched. I know that accommodations were trying to be made to allow as many Cherokee citizens to be informed as possible. But, we must get better as a Tribe when it comes to information dissemination. Either it is public, or it is not.