COMMENTARY: Second-class citizens?

by Oct 23, 2022OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


When the Tribe decided to enter the world of adult gaming, the tribal leadership made a prevision in the law that basically said that every tribal member would receive a portion of the per capita distribution. The government set aside a portion of profits to use for its infrastructure (healthcare, elder care, education, etc.) and an equal portion to be distributed to every member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in the form of a check mailed on a biannual basis.

Now, we all know that tribal membership in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is dependent on being tied and identified to an ancestor listed on the Baker Roll. And the “purity” of your tribal blood can be tracked based on your descendancy from that role. On your enrollment card, there is a number expressed as a fraction; 4/4, 3/4, 1/2, 1/4, 1/16, 1/32 (and fractions in-between). It speaks to the level of Cherokee blood versus “other” you might have coursing through your veins. I am not talking about what makes you Cherokee in the philosophic sense, but the biologic. We all know there is more to being Cherokee than blood quantum. There has to be or we are quite literally doomed as a race. The purity of blood is continually being diluted. Eventually, the only trackable percentage of true blood will be through DNA. Our dependency on blood quantum as a tribal identifier is a path to extinction.

So, even though tribal blood percentage is tracked, until a descendant reaches the point that they fall beyond the percentage of being recognized as a member (there is a blood quantum that, while not considered a tribal membership level, does allow some privileges of membership), all are considered equally and fully Cherokee. Among those considered Cherokee, there are no degrees of membership or citizenship. We are all equally Cherokee. Right?

There is an ongoing debate on how tribal members will be allowed to vote. There are some that say a member shouldn’t even have a right to vote unless they live on the Qualla Boundary. Others say that if they are allowed to vote, they should have to come to the Boundary to do it. Others say that if all of us are tribal members of equal value, then every effort should be made to get all the members’ votes recorded.

In years past, the majority of our people lived on the Boundary. And before adult gaming, most of the monies generated by levy and grants were used on tribal lands and local programs, except for limited funding of Indian higher education. There were very limited per capita distributions, no where near the scale of today’s gaming per capita. There was logic in the mentality that voting should be at least prioritized for on-Boundary members.

But today is much different than those bygone days. We have grown in population. Before the casino, there were limited opportunities for life-sustaining work. So, many tribal members, like me, had to go outside the Boundary to have careers and quality of life. In addition, the availability of housing and land for living on the Qualla Boundary has been increasingly difficult to find. Even now, with significant efforts being made to make tribal housing available, supply is far behind demand.

Currently, the geographic distribution of our population is a roughly 50-50 split with approximately 8,000 members living on the Boundary and the rest off the Boundary in various counties, states, and countries. While more career opportunities have grown on the Boundary, the land available for housing has not. And not everyone wants to work at the casino or in government, the two significant workforce opportunities available here.

Also different are the tribal enterprises. In the past few years, the tribe has been establishing beachheads in different states, expanding its economic potential through off-Boundary development. More and more, tribal members will be drawn away from the Boundary to other states, maybe even countries someday. As we grow, it will become even less likely that there will be sufficient land on the Boundary to accommodate the tribal population. In addition, many goods and services that are needed or wanted by tribal members are still lacking on-Boundary, which is another reason that members are living away so that they are closer to the amenities that they want for their families.

Yet, when the mention of loosening restrictions on the ability to vote absentee recently came up in Tribal Council, the same argument was raised again that those who live on the Boundary should be the decisionmakers for the tribe. This argument implies a disturbing concept, the acceptance of governmental regulation on a segment of tribal members, without representation. Inhibiting the ability to vote is a slippery slope. With potentially half of our tribe living off-Boundary, it is no longer an on-Boundary majority that is significantly impacted by decisions of our Tribal Council and Executive Office. It is a significant number of our total tribal community.

The answers to correcting this imbalance are not easy. While, by law, each tribal member is affiliated with a particular community, those who live off-Boundary may not keep up with the day-to-day needs and wants of that community. A person may be affiliated to a community by their parental connection, but live thousands of miles from it and know very little about it. Creating an “at-large” community with its own representatives is also challenging in that our power distribution system at our legislature is weighted based on population. Establishing representatives for the off-Boundary members would require drastic changes in the weight of each Tribal Council seat. When we add to that the small numbers on the Boundary (between 30 percent and 60 percent of those eligible) voting in elections, allowing more access to voting from off-Boundary members would have a profound effect on how the tribe is governed.

I guess the big question for our tribe is “Do we believe that all Eastern Band Cherokee people are equal?” If the answer is yes, then we need to discuss ways to ensure that all tribal members have access to goods and services equally and are afforded equity in voting. If the answer is no, then what does that say about our tribe and sovereignty? How do we keep from disenfranchising a segment of our people, relegating them to second-class citizen status?

When we have debates about exclusion or banishment of tribal members from the Boundary for endangering the members of our tribe, many of us defend the right to membership even above that behavior that many would feel justly deserves that punishment. We say that we believe that membership is a right not to be taken away lightly. Do we feel the same regarding the rights of members, like the right to vote? When many peoples of the world are finding ways to include as broad of a representation of its people in elections as possible, will we be more concerned with maintaining the status quo?

The tribal government has the resources and technology to ensure that every eligible tribal member can have a vote in tribal elections. The tribe also can ensure that votes are counted accurately. If the people desire that every citizen of the Eastern Band have an equal say in the direction of the tribe, then it will be so.