COMMENTARY: It isn’t all about the “per cap.”

by Nov 25, 2022OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


This is another year of decision. We are in what the election board, and Code, call “election year.” It was designated, in part, to prevent our governors from creating preferential law, or to be perceived as creating preferential law to garner votes and stay in office. Equally, it was to protect the incumbent leadership from manipulation by special interests within the tribe.

Yes, it is a year of decision, for some it is a month of decision, because two of our communities will be making decisions that will impact two of the twelve Tribal Council seats and have a combined 18 percent of the voting power of the Council (weighted vote assessments from the last, and out of date, tribal census). These two individuals will sit in those representative seats until September 2023, when a tribe-wide election will include the seats again in the every two-year shuffle of elected seats we have gotten ourselves into.

Many of us subscribe to a “get it while the getting is good mentality”. Or maybe it is better expressed with the old adage, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. Remember the long-running television game show “Let’s Make A Deal”? The one that made Monty Hall a household name? Maybe you know it better with current host Wayne Brady. I watch the people who get a pretty good prize and then they get the option to trade it for what is behind “Door #3”. And the contestant is so afraid that they will lose what they have in their hand, let’s say a fancy new coffee maker, that they choose to pass on Door #3 and hang on for dear life to the coffee maker. Monty (or Wayne) will tell models to open Door #3 to what the contestant passed up. And what did they miss out on? A brand new car!

What I mean is that sometimes we act like the contestant with what we perceive as too much to lose when an opportunity comes our way. We gather up and we hold on to everything in the moment tightly. We allow our fears of losing what we have in-hand stand in the way of the potential for better. Even when leadership shares opportunities that might mean substantial gain, we wring our hands, shuffle our feet, and mumble that we haven’t done it that way before and what we are doing now is working fine. I wonder if what sometimes appears to be apathy on our part when things like the constitution, modifications to our per capita distribution, alcohol and cannabis, off-Boundary business development, workforce development and housing, is simply fear of making a move that will disturb the benefits we already enjoy? We don’t want to rock the boat. We like getting those benefits we have attained through the casino.

And, before the casino, the tribe didn’t have a good track record at building successful businesses. One representative on Tribal Council would repeatedly object to any tribally-led business proposals. That same representative pulled me aside one day to comment on some of my writings about apathy toward being active in the process of governing and actions on the issues above. His thought was that maybe I was misunderstanding the community’s response or lack thereof. He said, “Did you ever think that the reason you don’t hear a lot from the community is because they are content? They are happy with what they have?” I had to admit that was not something I had considered. Then again, you don’t know what you are missing if you have never had or experienced better.

We are a blessed people. We did okay as a people before the ability to have a casino operation. We relied on tourism (family tourism) and grants from the federal government. Governmental leaders worked hard to provide services to the community, and with a budget in the low tens-of-millions of dollars, we did okay. There wasn’t a per capita payment, those direct checks to each tribal member, and most of our health care was from federal government providers. The leaders during those times worked wonders in providing education, housing, etc. for our people, but there is no way to compare the level of tribal benefits then to what we have today, with a tribal budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

When the federal government decided to move indigenous peoples in this land into reserves to allow for European expansion, prepare those peoples for assimilation/integration into their new America, and to control the resources of the continent, they made treaties with us to barter a peaceful transition. If Natives would stay where they were supposed to and did what they were supposed to, the government would provide social services, “education”, and health care. They hoped to push down our desire for independence by “taking care of us”. They traded on our sovereignty (or at least our desire for sovereignty) by breeding a mentality of entitlement.

Just a side note, before anyone tries to blame alcoholism, perceived or otherwise, among native peoples on some inherited trait, they should look at other people groups and see how the negative social conditions impacts substance abuse in those people groups. Physical pain is not the only type of pain that alcohol numbs. They just might find a correlation.

And we, as Cherokee people know this. We have lived it. The federal government of that day trained us in apathy. They wanted to instill it in us. And we hate it. We are a proud, independent people with minds of our own. As soon as a path was opened to us for financial independence from the federal government, we took it. And with financial power, we also started climbing closer to social independence, toward sovereignty. As much as the European invaders were our enemy back in the day, apathy and disengagement are the enemies today. We cannot allow ourselves to stagnate, to be happy with the status quo. To settle because we do not want to rock the boat. Risk is part of independence. It is a part of the sovereignty we seek. It is more important than entitlements. It is far more important than per capita checks. Who we are is much more valuable than what we get.

So, my dream is that every tribal member of age to vote in the upcoming special election in the Painttown and Wolftown communities makes sure that they are registered and that they cast a vote in the election in December 2022. Every on-Boundary tribal member. Every off-Boundary tribal member. Each one of you has the right, the privilege, the duty to your ancestors, to your parents, to your children, to make a difference by electing leaders who will move our tribe forward. Leaders who will lift all Eastern Band tribal members, not a select few. Seek those candidates who prove to you that they have wisdom, integrity, and love for the community, the entire community of the Eastern Band. Demand that they share with you their vision for how the entire tribe will benefit through sustainable economic development and how they plan to hold themselves accountable for the success of our tribe, or the failure. Because you will be deciding whether the tribe progresses or goes backward based on the persons you put in those two seats. It is true for every election. It is true for this one.

We need to stop holding on to what might look like a good thing because we are afraid of what might be behind Door #3. We don’t have to hoard up the things we can get in the present, because we have the wisdom and resources to build the future. And the future is so much more than a per cap check. We all need to participate. We all need to engage, because we all have skin in this game.