COMMENTARY: Which public is the public?

by Aug 19, 2023OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


We need to figure out, as a tribe, how we want to disseminate information to our community. As you know, there is an incredible amount of information that is relevant to our community discussed in the Tribal Council sessions. And Tribal Council sessions include but are not limited to Budget Council (first Tuesday of each month), Reports to Council (first Wednesday of each month), Tribal Council (first Thursday of each month), committee meetings, work sessions, and more. The tribe has a lot going on.

Our government is unique. It is unique in part because of the population it serves. Our membership is hovering around 16,500 people. Comparatively, Clay County has a population of 11,614. Graham County has 7,980 folks. Cherokee County has 29,512. Swain County has 13,967. Jackson County 42,955, and Macon County has 38,065. There are many differences in these populations compared to the tribe, not the least of which is that Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) is a sovereign nation versus dependent municipalities like counties.

Last year, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians budget was $732.5 million, give or take. Compare that with Clay County, whose budget is typically around $24 million. Graham County $23.7 million. Cherokee County’s budget is about $54.6 million. Swain County is working with $23.5 million. Jackson County has roughly $88.1 million. Macon County’s budget is approximately $64.5 million. In every area of community service and business development, our tribe should easily be outpacing the surrounding municipalities.

Recently, the Executive Office released an annual report to the membership outlining government spending over the past four years. While the report speaks in aggregate, as most reports of this nature do, it provides quite a bit of detail as to the expenditures, investments, and accomplishments of our government. By comparison, the tribal report has similar characteristics to the reports released by the counties to inform their constituents. The Tribal Council also sees a series of annual reports from each program every year, which also aggregates the program budget and provides some deeper detail into program spending, achievements, and goals. Those, per the Cherokee Code, are available to the public at the Qualla Library in the Ginger Lynn Welch Building. These are not housed on a common website for viewing.

As you can tell by the numbers, we are different. While we have a population of a town or county, our economy is 10 times the size of a larger county in western North Carolina. Per capita, EBCI has a budget equal to $44,393 per person, compared to $2,051 per person. It means that the tribe has much more to work with than most municipalities. It also means that there is more for the government to be accountable for.

Our government is continually working to innovate and expand its ability to sustain the incredible economic model that has evolved over the past twenty or so years. That means negotiating land deals, business-to-business partnerships, service agreements, and the list of high-level discussions go on and on.

And while most of our sitting government and candidates for office agree that, at some level, the membership of the tribe are stockholders or stakeholders in all of the economic efforts of the tribe, and they think that every member should have access to those high level reports, they can’t seem to figure out how that information could be accessed by the tribal members but not made public for all the world, including those who might want to pirate our success by harvesting our records and sifting through it for information for their own gain. In a business world where the margins are tight and the difference in bankruptcy and financial success could be one information leak away, it is a necessary evil that we shield our proprietary information.

But there has been much talk about the need for transparency in our tribal government. As a tribal member and a member of the press, I believe in providing the public with as much information as possible. But the public has different meanings to different people, particularly in Indian Country. The One Feather is a public-facing entity. To inform our most remotely connected tribal members, the One Feather uses media platforms with as much reach as possible. Disseminating information this way also means that many non-Indian, unenrolled people also see our information. Which seems to be the heartburn issue for our government. The tribal government continuously works on the economic strategies of its financial arsenal to enhance the prosperity of the membership. And that arsenal includes brick-and-mortar development, investments in business opportunities, and lobbying other governments for opportunities at the state and federal levels. And discussions about all the development, opportunities, and lobbying require some amount of confidential discussion. Because competitors have big ears (if they are smart competitors) and will leverage any information provided to them for their betterment, regardless of the harm they may do to the tribe.

So, the ongoing dilemma is how to inform the shareholders, the enrolled members of the tribe, about negotiations and information they have a right to know, without providing that same confidential information to a world that includes real and prospective competitors. And how do you inform a membership of 16,500 and educate all of them on the finer points of confidentiality?

Closed-circuit (I apologize for the old-timer reference) cable and encrypted web portals have been suggested as solutions for dropping data to the membership without letting the world know. And that may end up being a fine solution in the long run, but the information vacuum exists now and until that remedy is provided by the government, there will be times when most tribal members will be in the dark.

The Cherokee Code refers to this issue in its definition of executive sessions of the Tribal Council. The Code says that anything not necessarily deemed confidential that is said during a closed session should be shared with the membership, all the membership. But the way that is usually chosen to provide information to the community is though Tribal Council representatives’ visits to community club meetings. And even the most well attended community club meetings are visited by a small fraction of the overall community. So, it is a good guess that most tribal members are not informed about many of the things that transpire during a closed session.

Then there is the government’s ability to “turn off the cameras” during open sessions. The rationale for doing it is allegedly so that sensitive issues may be discussed and even voted on without non-Indians, or outsiders, getting the information, yet still allow select tribal members-those in the Tribal Council chambers-to see and hear the discussion. But the impact is not just that. It also shuts off all those tribal members who either chose not to attend in person or are possibly physically unable to be there. This “tool” can be used at will by our government. Most of the time, all you will hear is the command to “turn off the cameras.” The only members who will hear the discussion are those who came to the Tribal Council chambers, and typically the only people who attend are those with items on the agenda. And there have been instances when these off-camera open sessions transitioned to executive sessions when members of the press were in Chambers (the media is asked to clear the Chambers when that happens). After all, having a reporter in the open session with the cameras off would defeat the objective of keeping those discussions out of the public eye.

The tribe truly needs to come to terms with the dissemination of information. In the EBCI Annual Report 2022, in the Vision Statement, one of the bullet points states, “By 2025, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will be the most informed membership in Indian Country.” If the tribe is going to achieve that vision for itself, things must change. If technology is the answer, providing secure portals on the Internet for tribal members to review proprietary information, then the tribal government should prioritize and fast-track that technology. If the answer is changing tribal law to provide more open access of information to the membership, then they have the power to quickly do so.

Knowledge is power and the power belongs to the tribal members, all of us.