By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
I, like many folks, came from a background of limited means – a family with a firm genealogy in Appalachia, genes from the Qualla Boundary through my father and genes from generations of Carolina mountain people from my mother. But for government assistance and the kindness of church people, my life would have been much more challenging. Even with that help, there was a night or two of living out in our vehicle and wondering where the next meal would come from. The word for it back in the day was poverty. Some folks now refer to portions of that kind of life as “food insecurity”. Another way we used to put it was “living hand to mouth”. Living that way can make for some tense moments.
And while I had my share of worries back then (I was the oldest child), my mother, I am sure, felt like the weight of the world was on her shoulders. For the better portion of my early years, my mom was a single mother who got no child support or alimony. Even if the court ordered those dollars, my birth father, also living hand to mouth, wouldn’t have had the means to pay it. I cannot imagine the emotional and physical toll my mother endured in trying to provide for, at the time, three youngsters, and herself with no home to call her own and a limited education. She was very young when she had me and my two sisters only a few years after. So, when she separated from my father, the weight of responsibility must have been almost unbearable. Most of her early life was spent trying to find ways to get by on the most meager of provisions.
But she did. And I remember my childhood and that of my sisters, as a mostly joyful time. People from similar backgrounds often say that they didn’t know they should feel bad because they didn’t know how bad off they were. I can relate. When you are busy living, it doesn’t occur to you to get emotional about your situation. You can always wish or dream for more, but you are mostly just thankful for what you have and thinking about getting to the next day. When mom could get work, the paychecks early on wouldn’t keep us up till the end of the week. Even as she got better paying positions, we seemed to continue to live paycheck to paycheck.
A September 2023 CNBC report said that 70 percent of Americans are stressed out about finances and 58 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Those stressed about finances cite “inflation, rising interest rates, and lack of savings”. And even with per capita payments, health benefits, and housing programs, many on the Boundary face the challenges of stretching the pay week to meet the actual week. We are creatures of habit, and our habit tends to be spending to the limits of our incomes. The more we make, the more we want, and the more we spend.
In January 2023, an American Bar Association article tackled the issue of poverty specifically among Native Americans. In it, Adam Crepelle reported, “Poverty and its related maladies are a scourge upon Indian Country. Many people believe this poverty stems from Indigenous cultures’ inability to adapt to Western economic models. This notion arises from the belief that North America’s Indigenous inhabitants were noncommercial prior to European arrival, but this is false. Commerce with distant and diverse peoples occurred so frequently that trade languages emerged in precontact North America. Wiping out tribal economies was a colonial tactic. Although federal policy now seeks to encourage tribal economic development, tribes remain trapped in a byzantine legal regime that subverts tribal economies.”
In the same report, “More than one in four Indians live in poverty, the highest rate of any racial group in the United States. The poverty rate is even higher for Indians who reside within Indian Country. Reservation poverty is particularly troubling given the United States has trust and treaty obligations to foster tribal economic development. Nonetheless, the United States miserably fails to allocate even basic levels of funding to tribal governments. Another confounding issue is many of the country’s most impoverished tribes have significant natural resource endowments. While some tribes choose not to develop their resources, other tribes would like to capitalize on them. However, the federal government stands in the way by severely restricting tribal economic sovereignty.”
Poverty on the Boundary doesn’t seem to stem from lack of opportunity. Shingles are up everywhere with businesses and organizations advertising job openings. The Cherokee Boys Club has had a wind banner in front of their offices for weeks asking for workers. For several weeks prior to the election, I requested employment information – number of vacancies, etc., but the numbers were not shared. There were indications in Tribal Council sessions from the administration that there were several vacancies throughout the government and in our entities.
Like personal financial management, governmental financial management is a balancing act. We have experienced two decades of unprecedented revenue generation, profits, and prosperity. And we spent many of those years enjoying prosperity. We had a monopoly on a single revenue stream and that was enough. We were living to our means. Many in the government and outside expressed concern over building an infrastructure on a single primary source of income. Like in a home finance situation, things will go along smoothly until you live beyond your means; until you spend more than you make.
The tribal economic development balance began to shift. Rumors of impending casino operations invading our monopoly turned into actual brick and mortar operations. More threats appeared and more urgency to strategically address the future of the tribal economy. So, a decision was made to make investments in other states, primarily in the business that we knew would make the quickest return on investment. But, according to the government, when funding was being discussed for the cannabis project prior to the election, we had pushed the limits of the buying power of our tribe. Rumors began to circulate that the tribe was “broke”. And in the environment of government and politics, public perception is reality.
And even though we are far from poverty stricken as a tribe, it is obvious that we are under pressure. There is a balance that must be restored. The new administration has inherited some opportunities as well as some significant challenges. Growing multi-state and potentially international investments at a rate that will match or exceed any negative impact of competition and the national economy. Belt tightening internally will certainly help but will not balance the continuing and likely growing needs of the community.
Our economy was in transition long before the election and, as we all have said many times before, strategic decisions will need to be made at the speed of business, which is rarely as slow as the speed of government. Opportunities will continue to be in jeopardy if we don’t find ways to move smartly and swiftly. And our competitors will capitalize on any indecisiveness on our part. This is a time when we need experienced, decisive leadership that is innovative and nimble. Our Executive Office and Tribal Council have big jobs and they must do them under pressure.