COMMENTARY: Happy with the status quo?

by Jun 6, 2022OPINIONS0 comments



One Feather Staff


Do you think we have a perfect system of governance with the best leadership we could possibly have? To hear some voices in the community, the answer to that question would be a resounding “no”. And then, you would also hear many who say “yes”. It is a reality of politics: you can please all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you will never please all the people all the time.

In my own job here at the paper, when I hear folks’ compliments (which I am humbled and grateful for) but I do not hear criticism, I get a little nervous. For the reality of this job is I, many times, must do and say things that offend or upset at least one or two folks if I am going to hold to my and the newspaper’s stated system of values. In short, if you do the right thing by a consistent standard, you will inevitably offend or rub someone the wrong way.  The same paradigm may be applied to the political environment of the tribe. And much hangs on the “standard of right” or ethical standard of each person in our tribal leadership. To paraphrase a former U.S. president, whether you are doing the right thing or not depends on what your definition of “right” is.

We live in a society that seeks and sustains itself on propaganda and hype. Politicians, even those who deny that they are politicians, routinely exaggerate to accentuate their positions. There is not much in this world and not many people in this world that are totally bad or good. Typically, people and things are a balance of good and bad. And even good and bad are in the eye of the beholder, socially speaking of course. I am staying away from personal religious beliefs intentionally, mainly because that too tends to gravitate toward political extremes today. Without some sort of social norm, good and bad is truly subjective, and as is the case with situational truths, contingent on what level of education a person has on a particular subject, idea, another person, or group of people. So, we generally, these days, tend to market our value system to others. And part of our marketing strategy is to highlight our “good” and their “bad” and conversely, we ignore their good and our bad. So, what you typically see in an election is candidates who paint incomplete pictures of both themselves and their opponents.

Facebook and other social media outlets have made billions of dollars satisfying our appetite for gossip. We have itchy ears for it. And we want to hear what we want to hear. We gravitate to people and group pages that confirm our already formulated idea of what good, right, or ethical is. Again, it all boils down to what your definition of “right” is.

If you look at any of our past tribal voting records, there is a glaring fact that hits you as you scan the data. We have had elections in which less than 40 percent of eligible voters came to the polls. In a few cases, there were not enough voters voting to create a valid quorum for a referendum vote. And when you ask the constituents what their reason is for not voting, you get the propagandized answers; “Well, I don’t think my vote matters”; “They are going to do what they want to do anyway”; “I know that so-in-so is going to win, so why bother”.  This mentality prevails even though some races in our tribal elections boiled down to ten, five, and in at least one case, one vote. Based our historic voting records, it is a great turnout if we manage to rally 50 or 60 percent of the electorate to take a few minutes, two times a year to participate in the election process. This makes it more understandable that some feel they can get in front of the Tribal Council chamber podium and say that they speak for the people or tell you what the people want. Those people at the podium don’t have to worry about at least half of us contradicting what they say, because we won’t even speak with our vote.

Our government is juggling a bunch of balls. Building is taking place at a pace that I have not seen in 20 years. The most recent Tribal Councils and Executive administrations have dug in on land development. For example, we have at least five large, multi-dwelling (apartment and duplex) housing units either completed or in the final stages of completion. Single dwelling homes are moving slower, but they are moving forward. Buildable land, as far as for residential use, is a “high priority”, whatever that means in our current environment. And yet, we continue to see battles among our leadership regarding land purchase and land use. The latest battles that have been vocalized have been about land use planning and integrating workforce housing. Because we have a limited land mass and limited “buildable” land, there must be some consensus regarding purchase and use to find productive solutions for the people. And while some try to make reasoned arguments pro and con, much of the debate includes accusations of personal agendas, character challenges, and political speak, all of which distract from the resolution of an issue and therefore delay remedies for the members of the tribe.

Many of the laws in our Cherokee Code contain an element of quasi-civil rights. They reside in Code because the Charter does not imply any member rights except voting and a census to make voting fair and equitable (a right, by the way, that has been denied to the people for at least a decade of elections). It is, after all, a charter and not a constitution.

There are other projects, like a homeless shelter, recognition signage for cultural figures, Cherokee Code cleaning/updating and others that get a mention every now and then, but like cans on the road, they get kicked down the road to another Tribal Council seating or Executive election. Large-scale, important projects, at least according to the Tribe’s own strategic economic development document, get kicked down the road so long that they become obsolete and must be removed from the list.

Routinely, tribal services will be checked through a monthly session of Council that requires reporting from key programs and divisions within the Tribe. Almost as routinely, Tribal Council representatives or community members will come in and request information and correction of a lack of or delay in services. Whether it is medical, facilities, housing, or any number of other social programs, there typically a few areas that need to be addressed or corrected. The law of averages would argue that as normal. What is not normal or acceptable is the deflection that occurs in some of these cases. When there is an issue to be addressed, at times, there is a tendency to shift focus from the issue to personal attacks. To distract from a problem and its resolution, you might hear “We have good people on our team, and we won’t stand for their reputations to be tarnished.” At that point, the focus shifts from addressing a potential fix for a problem to a perceived personal attack of some sort. We seem sometimes to have trouble keeping the main thing the main thing.

We have a flow of information issue within our government. Our leadership has expressed a desire to be transparent, but transparency requires more work than one would think. I have been advocating for a tribal program, possibly housed under the Communications Division, that would be tasked with the release of information to the community and to the public at large. Some programs, a few programs and tribal entities, have actual public information officers (PIO) who are tasked by their job descriptions to disseminate information to the public. The challenge with most information within the tribal government is that, according to the human resources policy, primarily everything discussed inside a program is confidential until released, and I’ve had some directors tell me that they can’t release materials until they are released to do so by the Executive Office.

In one instance, I was informed by an attorney, regarding an information request made to Tribal Council through the operations office, that the Code did not require the release of that information, so they would not release it. In short, it was not the content of the information that determined its release status, it was a legal loophole that gave blanket authority to deny the release of information to the public. There was no mention by the attorney about even the possibility that there might be proprietary information in the requested document. It was simply denied because they could. We have even had situations where we were denied information by tribal government that our government had provided to the federal government. We subsequently made public information requests to the federal government and obtained the information that our tribal government could not provide. Transparency at its finest, not.

A public information office would organize the existing public information officers into a legitimate representative entity for the Tribe. It could be educated in what is legally public information and could act as a clearing house for external communications for all iterations of our tribal government. Simple laws could be created, as they were for the ethics committee, to provide guidelines and authority so that a public information office could work with programs and entities to generate reports that would be transparent, yet not compromise confidentiality. One of the issues the government deals with on a day-to-day basis is true community engagement. Engagement to the level of knowing what most of the people want. A good public information office could streamline the red tape process that has bogged down our public records law since its creation.

We are a nation of people, and we are a multi-hundred-million-dollar business/government. We need to pay attention to the needs of fine tuning our government and it is not up to just the leadership to make that happen. It is up to all of us who are tribal members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.