COMMENTARY: Acknowledgments for Tribal Election Debates

by Jul 29, 2023OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


We just wrapped up the tribal election debates for 2023. I wish to thank all of the candidates who were able to attend and participate in the debates: Perry Shell, Venita Wolfe, Cyndi Lambert, Tribal Council Vice Chairman and Birdtown Representative Albert Rose, Birdtown Representative Boyd Owle, Jim Owle, Snowbird – Cherokee County Representative Adam Wachacha, Painttown Representative Sean “Michael” Stamper, Painttown Representative Dike Sneed, Jeff Thompson, Carolyn West, Yellowhill Representative T.W. Saunooke, Stephanie French, Tom Wahnetah, Bo Crowe, “Peanut” Crowe, Wolftown Representative Andrew Oocumma, Wolftown Representative Mike Parker, Vice Chief Alan B Ensley, Big Cove Representative Teresa McCoy, Michell Hicks (Principal Chief 2003-15) and Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed (2017 to current). I know that it took time away from the candidates’ already hectic schedule and, on behalf of the One Feather, I am sincerely grateful that they took the time and effort to attend and participate in the discussions. I hope that the voters heard what they needed to hear and are now just a little bit more prepared to make the decisions they will make in the coming month as they select the leadership for the coming years.

I am also grateful to the candidates who were not able to be there, Tribal Council Chairman and Big Cove Representative Richard French, Carla Pheasant Neadeau, Janell Rattler, Snowbird/Cherokee County Representative Bucky Brown, and Yellowhill Representative David Wolfe for their willingness to serve. Most sent their regrets via email. We know up front when we plan these things that the times and dates will not fit everyone’s schedule and while we hate to miss even one of our candidates, we surely understand that life doesn’t come to a standstill for the debates.

The One Feather wishes the entire roster of candidates well in their endeavor to serve our community as elected public servants. And I respect the decision of our Chief of Police, Carla Neadeau, to continue to serve in her critically important role of service to our community.

The EBCI Communications team was and is absolutely vital in documenting this very important and historic event. Their technical expertise and labor ensured that all the candidates were heard in the venue and on the live stream. The tribal debates are literally available to the world because of the efforts of that team.  Any tribal member, anywhere on the planet may now go to our Facebook pages (EBCI Communications Department, Cherokee One Feather), click on the posts for each debate session, and watch and hear the messages of all the candidates who participated.

As mentioned by one of the candidates, one of the key considerations that voters need to consider in selecting a tribal leader is their ability to stand toe-to-toe with local, state, federal, tribal, and international leaders. Having good speaking skills, good body posture and presence, and excellent composure as our representatives, the representatives of our history, culture, and people. Their faces are your faces. When they stand in front of, say, the President of the United States, they are your image, tribal member. The U.S. President looks upon that representative, whether it is a Principal Chief, Vice Chief, or Tribal Council Representative, as the embodiment of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. So, it is just as important how your representatives present themselves as it is what they might be presenting on your behalf.

That is one of the reasons the debates have always been important. The voters get to see the candidates in unfamiliar territory. For the incumbents, they are used to being in the decision-making position listening to constituents, who are making their pitch to win the elected official’s favor.  In the debate series, the roles are reversed. It is the incumbent who is making their pitch to convince the constituents to be on their side. In most cases, the elected official will be in control of what is being seen by the constituency, they turn cameras off and go into executive session. In the debate series, the constituency is a party to all without any regulation. For those candidates who have not been in office before, they must battle all those firsts…jitters, stage fright, etc. They get to experience being examined by their prospective voters in a unique way and a way that will expose them to the very public office that they are seeking.

Some candidates were concerned that there were not more audience members or spectators at the in-person sessions. Personally, I prefer a more intimate meeting of the candidates in which they are prone to be more open with their responses to questions. It is easy to forget the whole world from the other side of a camera lens could be watching when questions are rolled out and the candidates are in an intimate small group.

The One Feather debates were never intended to be “gotcha” sessions with blindsides. I sent out debate questions the week prior to the debates for each candidate. It does the voters no good to see our prospective leaders try to piece together answers on the fly. In reality, we would like to see our leaders prepared with material on any subject they either intended to make a decision on or as they are making pitches on behalf of our tribe to other governments and entities. When given a week to prepare, the voter gets to see what kind of time and effort the candidate is willing to put forth for you to get your vote. That would be true whether they were at the U.S. Congress lobbying for laws to reverse the effects of the Oliphant court decision or if they are resolving a land dispute between two or more tribal members.

It was noted that I referred to the Chief candidates on a first-name basis (I asked them in advance if that would be okay). In fact, I used first names in all the debates. Part of the reason is ethical. In that particular forum, we are doing our best to present a level playing field for the candidates to give their responses. Come election day, it will not matter what title you hold before the election, only the title the voters give you after the election. I have great respect for each office and those holding those offices. It is the most unnatural thing for me to do, for example, to call our Principal Chief by his first name. It is equally out of character for me to refer to a former Chief as anything but Chief. It is simply how I was raised and how I understand the formality of those offices. But it is imperative in those debates that the voters get that sense of equality, that the candidates be evaluated in a fair forum. Frankly, tribal candidates are mostly known on a first-name basis and encourage familiarity. With the relatively small voter base that our candidates work with, the more time a candidate can spend building relationships, the better their chances of election. Good or bad, popularity, more so than ability, wins elections, and that rule applies not just in tribal elections but in elections in general. That doesn’t mean that you get bad leadership. It just means that you must depend on the candidates to not only be popular, but also the best qualified. The other part (of the reason) is for ease of reference. It is easier and quicker to use first names than fumble with titles and last names. The less I need to focus on those names during those sessions, the more I can pay attention, and be fair and responsive to the candidates.

The leadership team of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian allowed the Tribal Council debates to be hosted in the Multi-purpose Room at their facility. It was a much smaller venue than we had in previous debate series, but it turned out to be an exceptional place to host a small group audience and accommodate all the candidates for each of the six communities. The Museum team made sure the facility was prepped with the proper number of chairs and tables and allowed the One Feather and Communications staff to do what was needed to get the job done. We are grateful for the Museum’s partnership for this election year’s debates.

Once we had located a venue, some expressed concern that the Vice Chief and Principal Chief debates would draw more people than our venue could accommodate. Ashleigh Stephens, who overseas the One Feather administratively, suggested and help request the use of the Birdtown Complex Gym to host these two debates. The Complex staff were busy with sporting tournaments but made sure that all our needs were taken care of, ensuring that we had access, could operate the bleachers, and basically walked me through the use and cleanup of the facility. We, at the One Feather, appreciate the leadership and staff of the Birdtown Complex for help to successfully execute the Vice Chief’s and Chief’s debates.

To all those who helped formulate the questions, including the Cherokee One Feather readership, the Qualla Boundary community, and the Right Path Leadership Alumni, the staff of the One Feather gives heartfelt thanks. After all, the purpose of the debate series is to provide you with up-close access to the candidates and to share information you need to make an informed choice as it pertains to the candidates and the referendum questions on the ballot. We hope that those who attended, watched via live stream, and will be seeing it in reruns, listened carefully to the responses of each candidate and will add that information to their decision making when they head to the polls. Time to choose EBCI Community. Choose well!