By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
There is a law on the books (the “books” being our Cherokee Code) that allows Tribal Council to shut off the cameras, streaming, and video feeds so that things can be said in the Chambers that are not seen nor heard by the “rest of the world” including our own tribal communities and tribal members who may be too far away or too busy to sit in Chambers to be provided explanation and information relevant to our people. The One Feather has been informed that those sessions are still “public meetings” and may be documented, but in most cases, we are instructed that these “off-air” discussions are indeed closed and not for public consumption.
The difference in going into closed session and moving to “turn the cameras off” while remaining in open session is that in “cameras off open sessions” business may continue to be conducted, even to the point of taking a vote without anyone seeing or hearing the debate or vote when they are in “open session” with the cameras off. During closed session, the Tribal Council may discuss an issue but must move out of closed session into public session to cast votes and approve legislation. This is a really strange loophole in the law that allows the Tribal Council to go into a basically private session without going into closed session.
Many of us in the Tribe have jobs. Many are in-home, or living assist, or some other facility where it is impractical or impossible to come out to Tribal Council sessions at the Council House. When technology and tribal convention met with modern communications, it allowed the governed the opportunity to participate and to be knowledgeable without depending on secondhand representations of the working of the government. We may now see in real time, the legislative processes and decisions that affect the everyday lives of our people. It has become a key piece of our culture, and I believe what little engagement we, the governed, have with our governors comes from that new technological ability to know what is going on with our tribal government.
Current law states that the video archive of our Tribal Council sessions that you will find at ebci.com are not official records of our Tribe and that Tribal Council sessions are documented in some form of minute taking. Back in the day, the Tribal Council used stenographers like in a courtroom to document the legislative decisions of our Tribe. I think the Business Committee still engages the services of a stenographer. And yet the most effective, accurate documentation comes from the “tale of the tape”. With a copy of the video, we see the bulk of the process leading to the adoption of our living laws. We see the legislation read. We see the debate and discussion; we see the hands raised in ascension or descension. We see our community members stand at the podium and speak to those who represent them.
Surely there are some challenges to televised or streamed sessions. Human nature is to make your case to win the day and sometimes that leads to some high drama in the Chambers. Again, the tendency of those passionate about issues is to accentuate the positive aspects of their position while downplaying any negatives. As in a courtroom, motivations must be evaluated equally with actions. And when you have passionate advocates at opposite ends of an issue, the urge to play to the camera is hard to resist, because those in front of it know that the key to winning or acceptance of their position largely depends on the buy-in of a large enough constituency to impact a popular vote. Strong leadership in the Chambers is essential to effectively moderate and control any theatrics.
Gossip and rumor can destroy a person, a system, or a government. In fact, it is the ruination of our world. Some do it unaware that they are doing anything wrong. They want to educate the world as soon as they can with whatever information they have, right or wrong. Media outlets even participate in it by taking third and fourth-hand accounts of an incident and releasing them in the same breath as a substantiated fact. That is what most gossip is. Some are like scientists who take a little bit of material, put it in a petri dish with growth medium (food for the material), and nurture it until it turns into a virus and overgrows the dish. A rumor or gossip spreads like a virus, infecting anyone who has not educated and protected themselves with either the sifted version of what is being said or has learned the difference between factual report and embellished fiction.
I know that it is not possible for our government, particularly our law enforcement and court, to release every detail of an incident. They are charged with protecting the integrity of information and evidence. I also feel that some in our government may be so inexperienced, uneducated, or disinterested in providing information that they simply fail to release or respond to requests for information. And in the absence of fact, the community will hear and accept fiction. On a regular basis, you will find statements from people in our community on social media who have a bit or piece of something that happened in our community. Since they only have a limited view or slice of the information, they embellish what they have and post it all as factual. Someone will get that information, that has already been embellished, and add their own spin to the story and post it once again as a factual account. As you may already see, once this bit of fact goes through several storytellers, the story itself will mostly be made up of several different people’s opinions and may not resemble at all what actually happened or the bit of fact.
We have become so accustomed to accepting posts as fact that news organizations will, for lack of credible official sources, resort to scouring social media to find bits of information on an incident or situation, sometimes using personal social media posts as factual resources. And it is true that many of our tribal programs and entities have all but abandoned the practice of issuing press releases for the practice of posting their information to their social media accounts, further confusing an already confused population. After all, who would you trust to give you the right and true story, a unknown administrator on a social media page or your personal Facebook friend? Surely my old school buddy or favorite, twice removed family member would be more reliable that a generic program social media page.
So, wherever possible, I ask that our government be as transparent as possible. Our Tribal Council should have the tools they need to conduct business and provide security for our nation. Cherokee Code 117-13 (a) and (b) do that. Subsection (a) provides the framework for open meetings of our Council. Subsection (b) provides guidelines for entering into closed or executive sessions. Subsection (c) however says that “The Tribal Council may discuss issues in open session without public broadcast over the Tribal televisions system or other broadcast system if it determines that prohibiting the broadcast is in the best interest of the Tribe or an individual member of the Tribe.”
This type of broad brush language could mean that almost anything could be held from public view as no specific reason is required nor procedural protocol met in order for the cameras to be turned off. That would mean that even votes could be taken with the cameras off because the Council would technically still be in open session.
We should not be okay with information vacuums. We should not accept being told that we cannot know information because it is for our own good. All our elected officials campaigned on accountability and transparency. Ask them to help our community to be knowledgeable as much as possible. Video records should be official records of our tribe and should be documenting every session that is not a closed session under 117-13(b). The fire of misinformation is fueled by silence from our government. As many of our community members as can be, should be educated and informed on the issues that affect their lives.