By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
What am I entitled to? As a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, I should get some stuff. How about you? Don’t you think we should be getting more?
Entitlement mentality is a dangerous and slippery slope. Our ancestors did not have that mentality. They were not landowners, nor did they have an expectation that someone else would provide opportunity for them. They looked at land as a place to be, a gift of the Creator. Instead of asking for opportunity, they made for themselves opportunity. It was not until immigration, occupation, and assimilation attempts that Indigenous people were taught to be dependent and expectant. Of the atrocities perpetrated on our ancestors, possibly the most debilitating is that of taking their freedom away in exchange for providing shelter and sustenance.
The Principal People did not survive and thrive through an entitlement mentality. Our ancestors were smart and innovative. They were driven to make a way for themselves and their children and their children’s children. They envisioned a free and independent nation of Cherokee people that, through their own efforts, each man, woman, and family would have the means to live a free, good, and prosperous life. This was not just the hope of Cherokee people. It is the hope of every person, regardless of race or citizenship.
Entitlement thinking is a hope killer. There is a huge difference in taking care of yourself and being taken care of. The big problem of being taken care of is that ultimately, the caretaker either gets tired of or loses the ability to take care of you. Entitlement mentality runs contrary to personal and national sovereignty. How can I or the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians claim sovereignty when we are dependent on others for our shelter and sustenance? What hope do I have of being free if I continue to feed on the grace of others? This mentality was born from the invasion, then government control of indigenous peoples by those who came an took control of the land and resources.
Then the federal and state governments established reserves, through reservations and land trusts to house Indigenous peoples on in groups, at first to monitor us and then to “take care of us” while trying to figure out a way to assimilate us into “civil” society. This is a much-simplified summary of the history, but more detailed accounts are available to anyone who wants to do a little research. At first, our ancestors were told to stay on the rez and stay quiet and the government would provide for the needs of the people. Native people didn’t have land ownership, as a sovereign people would. They were only “entrusted” with it. And, so it is today.
Our government externally has made efforts to gain the independence of our people through economic strategies. United States laws provide for a structure that allows for the illusion of sovereignty, but stops at allowing tribes to contradict any federal laws. Tribes negotiate with states to gain concessions for allowances to do certain commerce, like adult gaming and cannabis. Even things like collecting Sochan and parking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are done only with the blessing of the federal government.
We seem to be content with the state of things as members of the Tribe. Please note that I say “members”. According to our own governing document, we are not citizens of the Tribe. We are members. Members have privileges of membership. Privileges may be added or deleted at the whim of the government. Citizens have rights. Rights are embedded and not subject to government change. The Charter makes no mention of member rights, although you could infer that the writers of the Charter, who borrowed heavily from what is commonly known as the Lloyd Welch Constitution, meant for our voting equality to be respected in that they made a provision for a census to ensure that the weighted vote assignments of Council seats accurately and equally represents each tribal members right of representation. That mandated census has been excused, postponed, and ignored for multiple election cycles. Now, I was under the impression that the Charter was/is the supreme governing document of the Tribe, and could only be changed by a vote of the people through referendum. Apparently, I was mistaken. No referendum vote has ever been taken to address not adhering to the direction of the Charter regarding the census.
Over the past month, there has been a great debate between Tribal Council, Vice Chief, and Principal Chief regarding “Indian preference” in hiring. Now, I believe that I am a beneficiary of our Indian preference laws, so I am a fan. I can’t imagine any member of the Tribe that would be against Indian preference. But we, at some time in our past, set up the definition of Indian preference in hiring as a step beyond a trump card in any hire or promotion possibility. And that further if any “minimally” qualified Indian was up for a job or position, no other applications would be considered. I am not sure how we came to embrace that definition. As was mentioned in recent work sessions on this issue, we are all for Indian preference, but we are also interested in making sure our citizens get the best quality workforce to give our community the best services. I think the debate could have been shortened or eliminated by simply rewriting our definitions to ensure that equally qualified Indian candidates would have preference over non-Indian candidates. It may have been that, early in the Tribe’s history, our people did not have the opportunities to get education and experience that equaled those of the outside world, so we created the definition of Indian preference to include “minimally”. But things have changed, every tribal member has the best opportunities to go to any school of their choice without the worry of incurring debt. The Tribe will educate any member up through doctorate degrees. Another benefit of having a corporate and economic giant on the Qualla Boundary is that executive level job experience may be had by any tribal member, and we don’t have to leave the community to get it. The barriers that may have created that minimally-qualified definition are no longer as valid as in our past when we couldn’t afford ivy league schools. For any tribal member who wants to put the effort forward, they can be equally qualified with any non-Indian candidate for a position.
During the debate over the hiring legislation, it was brought up over and over, particularly in the promotion practices of the hospital, that forcing leadership to reward the minimally-qualified at the expense of high performers comes at a cost. After all, who wants to be told that their surgeon or doctor is not the most qualified for taking care of them? In fact, who would want any service provider to not be the best and most qualified? Further, we are in an environment where we are having difficulty filling the positions that we have, not just tribal positions, but in our business community and tribal entities. Local fast-food restaurants are now having to periodically shut down in the middle of the day because they can’t maintain enough staff to service customers. Staffing shortages continue to be an issue at our gaming operations. Our government is at odds over building workforce housing versus tribal residential housing. There must be balance and a plan to address these critical concerns that have major influence on our economic and communal future.
Surely, there are things we should expect as members of the Tribe. And, yes, we are entitled to those things, whether those be from a federal, state, or our own government. But we should never look at things from a mentality of weakness. Instead of expecting “stuff” to be handed to them, our ancestors were made of the right stuff. Our ancestors were never weak, and we should never be.