By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
I have often said over the years that when the young voters in Cherokee decide to step up to the plate regarding voting, effectual change will occur. I am not talking about removing anyone from a seat necessarily. I am speaking of the mindsets and philosophies of the Tribe. We are creatures of habit and if we are reasonably comfortable, we will put up with a lot of bureaucracy.
Look at our Tribal Code. It contains many vagaries and contradictory statements; not my words; words from the lips of our own Tribal Council members. The Council had put long since expired deadlines on the administration to “clean up the Code” and provide reporting as to the progress. The Band-Aid that our government uses for not knowing what the Code states is to take a directive on each new law that states any previous laws that contradict the new law are invalid. We won’t do the due diligence of identifying what laws might contradict the new one and correct that language, so we just simply put a nullifying statement in each newly created law.
The bad news with this approach is that, since we do not research what laws have been established previously, when someone references to a specific law, no one knows if the law has been overridden by a subsequent law with the blanket caveat. Then, a curious back-and-forth game between the public, the legislation submitter, and the government occurs, citing multitudes of sometimes outdated or overridden regulations.
Why hasn’t updating the Code been a priority? Well, I am sure to most of the community, it looks like a functioning document. At least it gets the job done in most people’s eyes. That is, unless you are trying to get a governmental direction changed or a glitch in Code directly impacts you.
The Charter and Governing Document doesn’t mention you, the Tribal citizen, except in two instances. You, member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, are mentioned as a voter and you are mentioned as a way to get a percentage for the weighted vote. That’s it. And one of those points of law has been ignored by government now for decades. You see, the Charter was established in 1986. That’s right. Not 1886. 1986. And just about a decade and a half after the establishment of the Charter, we started violating the terms.
The weighted vote that permits Council seats to have additional power based on the population of a community is predicated on a 10-year census review and realignment of the community voting weights. But, in order for the communities to get fair representation under a weighted vote, the census must be performed. As near as I can determine from the language in the Charter, the Council in 1986 established a requirement for census that used the 1981 election as the starting point for every 10-year count of the people. So, immediately after the 1981 election, a census was to have been taken and then was supposed to be taken at 10-year intervals, with the weighted vote being adjusted to match populations in each community thereafter. So, in 1991-1992 and 2001-2002, the census was taken per the Charter. However, in 2011-2012, no census was taken. I guess the framers of the Charter presumed that law would be followed meticulously, because there is no prescription for what happens if the government fails to do what the Charter says to do.
So, we are now nearing the 10-year anniversary of not having conducted a census.
Yes, things seem to be just fine. In 1997, the Tribal Council and Executive voted in adult gaming, without a vote of the people. We have become materially prosperous as a result. And it is great that we are, so far, able to provide municipal perks to our people that rival any in western North Carolina. This is a good thing, but, if we had a crystal ball and could look back over the missed opportunities and mistakes we have made because we were complacent and satisfied with being satisfied, we might want to have a mulligan, a do-over, if you will, for some of our decisions.
During a recent work session/special session of Tribal Council, Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed uttered the following, “What is being lost in this (the public response to relief efforts over the course of the pandemic) is that there was so much the tribal government has done in response to COVID from day one. There was so much that was done. The real issue here is lost lives. We lost 13 people. The loss of any tribal member is a tragedy. The response of this government, Tribal Council and Executive working in concert with PHHS and Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority was unprecedented in a territory that none of us had any experience in. And the response now that its ‘over’, it seems to be the focus is ‘how much money am I going to get’. It is frustrating to me, after all that we have been through, and all this tribal government has done to take care of its people, to see the foolishness that is being circulated on social media. It is nauseating to me. As a Cherokee, it is embarrassing to me. We are better than that.”
The Chief’s frustration is understandable, and yet, hasn’t the Tribe, including and especially tribal government been part of the reason for such a mentality? While the focus should be on lives and health, haven’t we been led to believe that we should look to the government as parents and the community, the constituency, as the children, the dependents? And, as I have said in the past (till I am blue in the face) the community will have opinions, and in the absence of information, gossip will prevail. Isn’t that why we have six or seven community gyms and buildings when one or two would be more than sufficient? It is not unusual for the parent/child relationship to look this way. And we need to break the cycle. And, ironically, I believe that it will be the young people of our Tribe that will see, understand, and make inroads to establishing a new relationship between elected officials, the community that elects them, and the accountability needed in tribal law. Not sure if this is the generation to do it or the next. But, as I look into the crystal ball, it is inevitable.
In “The Memoirs of Robert Youngdeer”, former Principal Chief and Beloved Man Youngdeer recounts a statement made in 1982 by U.S. Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt. “735,000 Indians living on 50 million acres of reservations land are suffering some of the highest rates of unemployment, drug abuse, alcoholism, and divorce in the country. Every social problem is exaggerated because of socialistic government policies on the Indian reservation, because the people have been trained through 100 years of government oppression to look to the government as the creator, as the provider, as the supplier.”
Harsh words from a person who probably didn’t understand Native culture very well, but it was an admittance that the federal government made a mistake in taking away the dignity of a people by creating a parent-child relationship with Indian tribes. Members of our Tribe are not children and engaging us in that way shows a lack of respect and understanding, regardless of which government is doing so. Some of the embarrassing behavior and language comes out of an equal amount of frustration from being treated like children.
The Tribe has declined in the past to engage in meaningful discussion about a constitution to replace the Charter. Even back in the mid-20th century, efforts made to get rid of the State Charter were killed and subsequent attempts have met with government resistance. Without replacing the Charter, it will be difficult to break the cycle of the parent-child relationship between government and community. Beyond your right to vote, the Charter, the governing document, is devoid of civil rights for the citizens of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The civil rights that we do have come from the Cherokee Code, which is created and established by the Legislative Branch of our government. This is not a bad or good thing; it is just our reality. We have an inalienable right to vote, via the Charter, that cannot be denied without the consent of most of the voters of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. All other “rights” are subject to the Cherokee Code, which are not rights but privileges since we cannot vote to keep them or change them without government approval and can be given and taken away by same. There is a referendum mechanism to petition for a vote on issues other then voting, but that too must be voted on by the Legislative Branch.
Don’t get me wrong, I applaud those who serve in the Executive and Legislative Branches. It is not about individuals in the seats. It is about not having our heads buried in the sand and realizing that we may be missing opportunities and benefits to our people because we are being apathetic when it comes to our rights versus privileges as a people. During the 2019 election debates, almost to the candidate, each one said that the Tribe needs to replace the Charter with its own constitution. Many candidates and elected officials, before and after that time, have said that we need a constitution. But government support of getting a workable draft for the people to consider has not been forthcoming beyond a financial stipend.
Have you seen a Tribal Council work session on the constitution recently? Community leaders who initially engaged in routine meetings to create a draft constitution have dwindled down to just a few concerned citizens. It has been my experience that when our government leaders truly want something done, they do not flounder. Look at all the progress that has been made in very short years regarding outside land and business development. Boards and committees are quickly formed, and seats filled, and charters drafted when our government decides something is important and of value. And because of the relationship we have with our government, it doesn’t seem that we community members are going to get on fire for a constitution until the government shows interest or those young people in our community decide enough is enough and push it through on their own.
I am not sure I have a big audience with the younger generation of Cherokee people, but I hope you will share it with as many as you are in contact with. Decisions are being made right now that impact your future. If we have a constitution, it will be up to you. The direction of the Tribe will surely be at your discretion. Sure, us older folks will do our part, but you will be the deciding factor. Whether by your action or inaction, it is up to you.