By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
In many professions, it is common for folks to assume knowledge and want to tap into it. Example, if a doctor goes out for a meal, it is very likely that someone will identify him or her as a doctor, and then at least one person in the room will hear and ask for some expert advice. “I have this weird pain in my (fill in the blank). What do you think that is?” Or a lawyer might be at a ball game and, when spotted, be asked “I just committed (fill in the blank). What should I do to get out of it?” Many of us will complain about people in these professions getting paid too much for what they do, but we have no problem availing ourselves of their expertise, if we can get it for nothing. In other words, we respect the knowledge that they have, we just don’t value it until we need it.
Editors and writers get the same treatment. “I want to make (fill in the blank) public. How should I do that?” As a newspaper or media outlet, we have been chastised because some folks think that the only news that should be presented to the public is the happy news. We have had tribal officials come to us with that “request”. There was a largely unspoken of effort to make the One Feather a corporate newsletter at different points in its history, and it may have even been misconstrued as a founding intent. But the community sees a much greater purpose for the One Feather than a propaganda piece for our government.
The staff of the One Feather is working for and toward a community that is educated and informed. And that means that much of what you see may be disappointing, disheartening, disgusting…and any other “dis” you can imagine. Because reality, history, is about good times and bad times. And we don’t always know in the moment what is truly good or bad. For a media outlet, it should be primarily about documenting what “is”. The community is emotionally and psychologically healthier when it knows the truth. And if anyone, including the media or government, tells you “You can’t handle the truth”, you should be immediately suspicious of the messenger.
The editor of the One Feather in many ways acts as publisher for the paper. Because of the “hands off” mandate that is prescribed by ordinance in our Cherokee Code, the government does not intercede in the reporting of the paper directly. There have certainly been times when indirect control and pressure have been applied, but I am pleased to say that for the most part, the recent and current legislators and executives have been either tolerant or supportive of the law. Most of the difficulty in reporting to you comes from vagueness and weakness in the public records law. Vague language in laws that govern what information shall be released gives the government power to be very selective in what the public may inspect. Weakness in the law allows officials to deny access just because that weak law allows it.
In many governments, freedom of speech and the press is expressed in their foundational, governing document. Ours is a codified ordinance. Our Eastern Band Charter is silent about the rights of the people to speak and to know. The big difference is that the people must be asked directly through referendum if a change is going to be made to one of the foundational elements of our government contained in the Charter. A Cherokee Code revision may be done by the government, either by vote and ratification through Tribal Council and Principal Chief, or in the case of a Chief’s veto, a super majority override of that veto. So, for a Charter change, you must be asked, for a Code change, you do not.
We have done things to isolate your right to information and our rights to inquire on your behalf, and we will be submitting legislation to do much more. Other tribal nations struggle with this issue. Just in case you think that free press is too big of an issue and too popular to be messed with, I would like to provide you the following NPR report from KGOU (Oklahoma). It’s about the ongoing struggle of the tribal media outlet to maintain a free press for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The report is by Carolina Halter and it is from Jan. 7, 2019
“Muscogee(Creek) Nation recently repealed a 2015 law guaranteeing freedom of the press. The tribe backtracked just before the new year, but free press proponents suffered another setback late Friday when Principal Chief James Floyd vetoed legislation that would have restored the independence of the tribally-funded Mvskoke Media.
“According to Freedom of Information Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, Muscogee (Creek) was one of just three tribes in Oklahoma with free press protections. But that changed in November when the Muscogee (Creek) National Council voted to dissolve Mvskoke Meda’s independent editorial board, bringing it under direct control of the tribe’s executive branch. Under the new set-up, the outlet would essentially function as a public relations tool, rather than a news agency.
“’This isn’t personal against the newspaper staff, but there’s just too much negativity in the newspaper,” Muskogee District Rep. Pete Beaver said following the November vote. ‘There just needs to be more positive coverage.’
“The November measure was promptly signed by Principal Chief Floyd, who said it would not affect Mvskoke Media’s independence, even though stories from the nation’s Department of Commerce and reporters’ digital communications could be monitored under the nation’s employee policies.
“Before resigning in protest, Mvskoke Media’s former manager, Sterling Cosper, pushed back against Floyd’s assertion. ‘In the past, we have gotten word from officials that they would not touch and influence what we do,’ Cosper said. ‘But if the structure and the law does not reflect that, then it’s not going to really inspire confidence.’
“The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) also issued sharp criticism. It read in part: In a survey of NAJA membership earlier this year, two of the biggest threats to tribal media identified were a lack of financial resources and editorial control. Tribal journalists reported that their nation’s economies impacted their tribal media’s ability to be financially independent and that government officials and political interests often determined media content. Indigenous journalism plays a critical role in supporting tribal sovereignty and self-determination. From holding the powerful accountable to disseminating stories of cultural significance, a free and independent Indigenous press supports the goals of tribal nations by providing an open forum for community voices.
“The legislation vetoed by Principal Chief Floyd was passed on Dec. 5 by a 9-6 vote. It would have repealed the November legislation that abolished the tribe’s independent Media Act and restored Mvskoke Media’s independent editorial board. In a press release Floyd said Mvskoke Media has problems that need to be addressed, such as accounting for how it uses tribal funding. His veto could be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the Muskogee (Creek) National Council, but it is unclear whether the council will act.
“Some Muskogee (Creek) citizens are taking matters into their own hands with an effort to restore press protections through a vote of the people.”
In July 2020 the action of Principal Chief Floyd was repealed. In less than a year of executive control, “Mvskoke Media employees publicly testified that they were instructed to remove pertinent facts and entire stories, videos, and radio segments by executive branch employees during that time period. Censorship was occurring.”
The happy ending is that the people voted in a referendum and “approved a constitutional amendment requiring the tribe to provide funding for the day-to-day operations of Mvskoke Media and explicitly states that the tribe’s media are editorially independent of the Muscogee Nation government. That editorial separation is key. It puts power into making decisions based on the betterment of the people, not the government.”
Under the Cherokee Code, any civil right beyond that of voting, including those of free speech and free press, are one election away from the possibility of negative changes to the Free Press Act of the EBCI. Don’t take those civil rights, civil liberties for granted. If it were not for a forward-thinking Tribal Council and Executive Committee, we could face the ugly government censorship experienced by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation from its government. The people of that tribal nation voted by a majority of 76% to ensure that their news and voice would not be stifled by government censorship. We must educate ourselves. We need this conduit, the One Feather, for the people to raise their voices for tribal power to hear. We need this conduit to communicate truth to the people. May it ever be so.
“Omitting information only leads to an ill-informed citizenry. That type of ignorance does not serve any nation well.” (Tulsa World editorial)