COMMENTARY: Woe the People

by Sep 15, 2021OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor

Representative government is a mixed blessing. While representative government represents, by definition, the people, it is impossible for a small body of elected officials to resolve or agree with every person or body of people that they represent.

I have heard many people say that “he/she is not my (and then you may fill in the blank)…president, chief, council person” because “I didn’t vote for them”. Well, for those of you who think that way, I will tell you something that might be a revelation to you. If you choose to accept citizenship in a representative government, you choose to abide by the decisions of the majority, and sometimes just a voting majority, of the population. The only way that person, duly elected to office by the system of government you choose to live under, isn’t your president, chief, council member, etc., is if you renounce your citizenship.

Once again, the people have spoken in the way that is prescribed by the government they chose to live under. The Tribal election results have been accepted. Congratulations to those who have been newly elected or reelected to Tribal Council seats, and also to those who will be newly seated at the Board of Education. We, the People, also decided to allow the expansion of alcohol sales throughout Cherokee proper to the trepidation of some of us and celebration to others.
In the coming months and over the next two years, we will be seeing the results of the decisions we made in September. Our power switches from direct voices through votes, to voices of influence through the power of suggestion.

And that is something we need to chat about. Time after time, our community has heard and seen some unattractive exchanges in front of, by, and with our Tribal Council. As governments go, we have some of the most liberal policies and procedures when it comes to addressing the seats of government. It is because we are very passionate about “podium” ownership. In fact, for years, there was a powerful argument by different factions concerning who and for how long “the people” would stand in front of and dominate the podium.

What is the significance of the podium? Well, for the uninitiated, at our Tribal Council Chamber, the Council members sit at a table that is ostensibly shaped like a horseshoe. At the open end of the horseshoe stands a podium from which those who wish to address the Council may speak. Oh, and the podium has a microphone. And the microphone and a corresponding camera are connected to the networking technology that allows the world to see and hear all the comments made by the one who stands at the podium. Thus, the power of the podium. It basically allows you to not only stand toe-to-toe with the most powerful leaders in our tribal government, it gives you a megaphone to the community and to the world, the very definition of a bully pulpit.

As we have discussed in the past, we have a hard time communicating to and with our leadership. Not so much that we are not afforded opportunity. It is that we are either too timid, too disconnected, or too apathetic. Most of our citizenry never step before the podium, but we never lack for people who say they represent the entirety of the citizenry. There are those that look at the podium as some sort of magical device that allows them to see into the minds and hearts of every member of the Tribe, although that is just a working theory, because the reality is my views, as a tribal member, are routinely misrepresented by people who stand at the podium and say that they stand in representation of all the views of the people.

Challenges to the status of citizenry or tribal membership have included hints at redefining what or who qualifies to be a tribal elder. There has been commentary from both the Executive Office and from Tribal Council members that “it takes more than being an enrolled member and reaching the age of 59.5 to be a tribal elder”. Then, typically the statement is followed up by some negative experience or disagreement someone had with an older person that could potentially disqualify them from being a tribal elder. This is surely an area of contention for me because I get the feeling that now that I have finally reached the age that some folks have started referring to me as “Elderly Rob”, that they might change the criteria and benefits for those of us in the senior class. Maybe they will grandfather us in. Let me at that podium.

On the other hand, we are a relatively small nation. If you live on or near the Qualla Boundary, it is possible to speak directly to individual members of leadership. You are likely to encounter them at a potluck, a ball game, a funeral, or other local public function. And maybe more of us are speaking out in that format. Hopefully so. The problem with communicating in this way is that several may be doing so. Your thoughts may get lost among the many other voices speaking to power. Public forums do allow more focused communication. And during Tribal Council sessions, including Budget Council and all the various work sessions, the Council and Executives are there for the purpose of establishing governance for you. It takes a smaller amount of time to share your position with all of them as opposed to trying to get to each one individually. Again, for the people, the podium is a bully pulpit.

We all have seen totally relevant discussions about important issues turn into childish shouting matches during our Tribal Council sessions. It surely is discouraging and disheartening to see our Council Chambers devolve into shouting matches. All it seems to take is for one person to attack the integrity of another for the games to begin. All our talk about the proud history and wisdom of our people gets buried under a barrage of personal attacks and slurs to character. “If you disagree with me, then you’re nothing” seems to be the standard by which we debate issues sometimes. And most of the time, the issue that needs to be resolved for the people gets lost in the fray. We sometimes have short attention spans and are very easily distracted.

The civil rights of our people are important, or at least they would be if we had any. We have a Charter, the governing document of our Tribe. In the Charter are 24 sections, 1,901 words that outline the rights and duties of the Executive Office and of Tribal Council. And just what are your rights in the foundational document of your Tribe? It mentions your right to vote. That is a good one to have. Oh, and there is the right of equal representation. Now that is a tough one. You see, the way you are supposed to be afforded equal representation is via a tribal census that determines the population and therefore the weight of representation of each seat on Council. And since we have kicked the can of a tribal census down the road a decade or two, one of only two rights that you have under the Charter is kind of beyond its expiration date. And yet there does not appear to be a census on the horizon to correct the situation.

If you are looking for other civil rights, you must go to the Cherokee Code, except that those aren’t civil rights. They are civil privileges, afforded to you by the governing body. The difference is that in most of those, you do not get to vote in or out. You must leave that up to the representative government that you install with that single civil right, the vote.

Don’t get me wrong, we have some pretty good civil privileges within the Code, but shouldn’t some things be more than just privileges? And how do you hold your officials accountable without a bill of rights to make ethics enforceable?

We have been woefully negligent as a community regarding the issue of a constitution of, by, and for the Principal People. Many of the issues that we have belabored over the past years – alcohol, cannabis, land purchases, marriage rights, housing, you-name-it, are constitution-type issues because it involves the rights of the citizenry. And our rights currently are two, according to the Charter and Governing Document. And, as a community, we seem to be good with that.

There is an old saying that goes, “Gag at a gnat and swallow a camel.” The concept is that we focus on the bits and pieces of our lives that, in the overall big picture won’t impact us much, but ignore that which would make the most difference in making things better overall. That is the way I feel we have, as a community, looked at the proposition of replacing the Charter with a tribal constitution. We are clinging to two rights when we should be crafting a true people’s document to govern by.

When my brother went to buy his first car, he had an interesting take on the selection process. He didn’t have a lot of money or credit, so my thought was that he would be very prudent in his choice. Well, I was shocked when he rolled up in his new ride. The term “rattle-trap” leaps to mind as I remember my first look at it. As he pulled in the driveway, the car sounded like it was coughing up its last breath. Examining it further, I found a rusted body, duct taped engine components, ripped and stained upholstery, and bald tires. As I read off all these attributes to him and asked him what he was thinking, he said, “Yeah, but check out the stereo and speakers!” Nothing wrong with an impressive sound system, but it’s not the primary function of the vehicle or even why you buy a vehicle (well, except in my brother’s case).

Many of our woes come to us because, in many cases, we are short of sight. I am not laying any blame. We are products of the environments we grow up in. It is up to us to make the changes if we want them. But, we have got to want them. It starts with you and me and the rest of the community educating ourselves and reaching out to each other to find the common ground it takes to produce a document that truly leads us into the future. The Charter can’t do that. We need to stop stumbling on little things or singular issues and focus on the cause. Stop treating the symptoms and start doctoring the disease. And we have to stop giving the idea lip service, roll up our sleeves, and work together to make our lives and those of the next generation of Cherokee people more engaged and vital.