By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
I remember when I was a kid that there were some pretty tasty treats in the “welfare” food supplies that our family received. For a pretty good stretch of my childhood, we depended on those (and the federal food stamp program) to make it day-to-day. I still have great affection for the block cheese that is distributed as part of that program. Never have I tasted a better grilled cheese sandwich than the one we made with that cheese. There were other staples that I still remember with fondness from those lean days; gallon-sized cans of peanut butter, those white-label bottles of clear corn syrup, and big cans (cans were the preferred containers of the U.S. government back-in-the-day) of pineapple juice. They would even give us a big can containing a whole boneless chicken. The thought of the process from barnyard chicken to what fit in that can was always a little frightening to me.
You know, back in those days, I really looked forward to getting those commodity food packages. The things you most enjoyed ran out the fastest, meaning the days toward the end of supplies weren’t as happy and having to eat the less desirable food made you wish for the restocking day all the more.
I guess I could have lived off those commodity food deliveries for a lifetime. The government followed health guidelines for what they would offer (although sometimes you wondered with some of that stuff), but there was not a lot of variety. Government-issued food didn’t change much over the years that we needed to get our food that way.
I could have lived on that food, but I knew that there was something better. I knew that other families didn’t have to depend on the government for their food and that they had varieties of food all the time that I could only hope to see during special occasions, like Christmas.
Back then, I know that you had to meet certain criteria to receive commodities; low income, elderly, have a special physical need of some sort. And I knew that, in order to get “better food” or food of my own choosing, I would have to risk not getting commodities anymore. And that was a bit scary. Getting that government allotment of food felt safe and secure. Just sit tight at the house and they would give it to you every month. But in order to have better, I would have to let something go.
I think the Native experience is the same. For years after either being placed on reservations or permitted territorial holdings, the government said to stay on those reservations, and we will provide for your needs. The challenge was that native peoples knew that there was something better. We didn’t want to be taken care of. We didn’t want enslavement. But after years of living off the government, it became difficult to pull away from that. It was comfortable physically, but emotionally draining for Native peoples. We want more, but we don’t want to lose what we have. That was a mentality shared by many.
But many tribes, like the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, stepped out to create independent ways of living for themselves. We were able to have and do more and we decided what we wanted to do (much more so than since pre-contact).
In my situation, I had to make a choice to get an education and get a job so that I would not need government assistance. Don’t get me wrong, I think those assistance programs are wonderful and much needed for some who simply have challenges in their lives that were and are more insurmountable than mine were. I am just saying that in order for me to get to where I wanted to be, I had to make choices that stepped outside my comfort zone. In the case of our and many other tribal peoples, stepping away from federal government provision to make a better way for the people was also an exercise in stepping out, and a little scary.
We did so (stepped out) because we had the freedom to do so. Whether it is an inner volition or a campaign to change laws to gain the right to freely choose, we had to have the will to make the change. This is so in our personal lives, and it is true for us as a people, as a nation.
In order to get better, to do better, typically requires some sort of sacrifice. I can’t get my blocks of cheese anymore, because I gave that up for the freedom to choose. More specifically, I gave up the security that block cheese represents for the possibility of a better life. We, the members of this tribe, have done the same thing.
The Lloyd Welch constitution came from our desire to be free. It was a constitution because we wanted not to be governed, but to govern. Why allow us to then, decades later, throw ourselves under a charter? I do not know. I have looked at the history and it still doesn’t compute why we put a document in place that takes away or ignores the civil rights of its people; letting it replace a constitution. As a tribal member, if you have never read the Lloyd Welch Constitution, you should. And you should do a comparative to the current governing document, the Charter. What is the glaring difference? No direct mechanism to address the civil rights of the people in the Charter. That is something you would presume to be essential in a governing document of the people.
When we decided to create our on destiny by partnering with the adult gaming industry, we sacrificed a lot, beginning with the 10 Tribal Council members and two top executives who were voted out of office at the election shortly after the decision was made. We all enjoy great benefits, from much enhanced social programs and services to individual per capita distributions, but adult gaming was not a popular concept with the constituency of only a couple of decades ago. But we leaped on it because we wanted the freedom, and we knew that economic power would afford that freedom.
I have many discussions with colleagues about what it will take for our people to see the need, to have the passion, to get behind the effort to bring the Eastern Band back under a constitution. Some of us think it will take a great governmental failing or disaster. Well, we have had those, and the community didn’t budge on a constitution. In fact, the disasters seem to distract us from even focusing on the need for a constitution. We just don’t seem to get that many of the failings we see in government and governmental process have to do with not having a constitution that clearly outlines critical rights.
I think maybe the key for all of us is to look around at other municipalities, other tribes. We might see things that would make our lives better; that give us freedom; that protect us better. Maybe we realize, “Hey this is pretty good, but I know there is better out there.” Maybe we will lose our fear of messing up what we have if we change something and realize that the change is just want we need to make our lives better and the lives of our descendants. Maybe.