COMMENTARY: Beware of men in suits

by Jan 25, 2021OPINIONS





Speaking with many of our traditionalists and elders, you may certainly understand why many Natives are wary of those wearing suits. It is a hold over from the days of forced exodus and military domination of Indians. 

To the generations before us, suits look like uniforms. And it was educators and religious leaders, dressed in their finest, who were the boarding school leadership who thought that the best course for Natives was to be assimilated into the invading European culture, and the best way to do that was to eradicate any cultural norms that existed pre-contact, including the elimination of language, spiritualism, and history. The suit became a symbol of something or someone not to be trusted. Even now, it is a good idea to tell people to “dress down or casual” when visiting the Qualla Boundary. And it is also a good idea to be escorted by the person or group inviting you if you are going to request anything from a community member. The scars of attempts at forced cultural elimination are still visible, and for some, it is still an open wound. Many community members feel that there is still plenty of reason to distrust representatives from outside governments. 

For approximately four years, the One Feather has followed the investigation of the Qualla Housing Authority (QHA) by the United States Department of Justice. Federal agents were invited to Cherokee and given access to the Qualla Housing Authority building. They were provided space in our government buildings to conduct interviews. Tribal members were subpoenaed by the federal government for testimony. Tribal property in the form of file cabinets full of documents with personal, sensitive information were rolled out of the QHA and hauled off the Qualla Boundary. It was never clear what the federal agents removed from government offices because the community was never given an accounting of what was removed. It is unclear if tribal leadership ever got an inventory of what was taken from our land by the federal agents. 

And when I say “follow”, I use it as a loose term, because once the federal government began their investigation, they would not even acknowledge that an investigation was taking place. Week after week, month after month, the One Feather made inquiry on behalf of the community, and the response from the federal government was that they could not reveal whether they were even continuing an investigation. Time after time, the representatives of an outside government, the federal government, toed the company line, refusing to say if the QHA investigation was ongoing or if it had been concluded or if it had been dropped. 

Meanwhile, back on the Boundary, factions and special interest groups were supposing what was happening with that investigation. There was already a growing rift in our community. Cries of corruption, deception, and mismanagement were already rippling through our community. And, the Qualla Housing Authority investigation fueled an ongoing fire in our community. People were coming to the podium at the Tribal Council chambers, some in rage and others in tears. My guess is that at least one tribal election was impacted by the unclear, not determined potential ongoing investigation by the federal government. 

A year or more ago, I sent an inquiry to the federal public relations designate requesting any information on the QHA investigation. I even spoke on the phone with this representative. I asked the question that our staff had been asking since 2016. What is the status of the alleged investigation of the Qualla Housing Authority? Response from the federal agent – We will not confirm that there is an investigation or if there is not an investigation ongoing. 

Okay, I and my staff witnessed federal agents removing tribal property from the Qualla Housing Authority building. Will you tell us if you still are holding tribal property or if it has been returned? Response from the federal agent – I cannot confirm that the federal government has or doesn’t have any items from the Qualla Housing Authority offices. 

As I spoke with this public relations designate, I expressed to her the anguish that this situation was causing on the Qualla Boundary and among the members of our community. Even years later, tribal members are angry and hurting. The investigation, or not investigation, was causing pain and division. The designate said that she knew and that she was sorry. And that was the extent of the information that the government gave to tribal citizens for approximately four years. 

So, after waiting and inquiring since 2016, in November 2020, the Tribal Prosecutor’s office received a one-page notification from the U.S. Department of Justice. 

It said, in part, the following:  “In 2016, the United States Attorney General’s Office opened a federal Investigation of several Oualla Housing Authority loan programs, with the FBI as the investigating agency, as a result of a request from the then-principal chief of the EBCI, who informed us of allegations that the Qualla Housing Authority had made loans contrary to the regulations and requirements for such loans imposed by the federal government. 

As part of our investigation, the FBI obtained and executed a search warrant and seized a large quantity of loan files in late October 2016, and the agents of both the FBI and of the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Housing and Urban Development have extensively reviewed these files. They also investigated the procedures and funding for the loan programs in question. We have now completed the investigation, and we have concluded that there are no prosecutable cases regarding any violations of federal law.”

This letter was sent by R. Andrew Murray, United States Attorney and Richard Lee Edwards. Assistant U.S. Attorney.

Oh, and all of the tribal files that they could not say whether they had? They go on in the letter to say the seized files, as of November 2020, were in the custody of the HUD Office of the Inspector General. Apparently, that office has a good-sized closet. 

The Tribe has plenty of challenges to face without dealing with the continual stonewalling and lack of transparency that is typically the response of the government when an inquiry is made. Especially in the case of outside government agencies, we completely put our Tribe and its members into hands that may not have our best interests at heart. Policies that restrict media and public access to information vital to the health of community should not be permitted. Particularly since, in this case, the outcome is that the federal government didn’t find evidence of federal violations. It took four years to come to that conclusion. 

I surely hope that somebody still has an inventory of the materials taken from the Tribe. It would be nice to know that we got it all back. I would take their words for it, but, then again, they were all wearing suits and uniforms.