COMMENTARY: It isn’t as easy as it looks: The view from the backseat.

by Jan 27, 2024OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


Like many of you, somewhere in my being is the urge to be a backseat driver. I say like many of you, because I know from your comments on posts that we come from the same place sometimes. We are routinely saying about tribal initiatives, “If they would just do it the way I would do it, it would go quicker, be better, be easier”. From our backseat view, we seem to think we have a clear picture of what it takes to do a project perfectly and we are bewildered as to why the people in charge “aren’t doing it right”.

When I have an opportunity, I like to go and observe tribal court proceedings. I know, you are thinking I need to get a life. I just feel that to do my job right and, as a concerned member of the Tribe, I should be interested in the mechanics of how all areas of government function to the best of my ability. And attending some of these functions of government can be very eye-opening, and that is a good thing if you are one of us “backseat drivers”. So, I try to show up at public meetings whenever possible, not so much as to report on them, but to do my civic duty.

We began going to the school board and police commission meetings because it is important to not only know the outcomes and decisions of these bodies but also the representatives who serve in those bodies and as to how they rationalize those outcomes and decisions; and how they come to certain conclusions. When the community is not in a meeting, the One Feather team feels a duty and responsibility to be the eyes and ears of the community when it comes to those meetings, just as we do for legislative sessions.

It has always been a fascination of mine that important meetings like the school board and police commission are rarely attended by community members other than the ones serving on those boards. But it surely doesn’t prevent us, as a community, from peeping over the driver’s seat from the back and being critical (or celebrating) a decision that we know very little about. It is like the ongoing challenge the newspaper faces when people read only the headline and the first few sentences of the story and then pronounce judgment before they have read or understand all the facts. I am as guilty as my peers of leaping to conclusions from the backseat.

My initial attendance at court sessions brought a flood of questions and assumptions. What I saw at first was long periods of what seemed to be inactivity interrupted by moments of what seemed to be very simple instruction or decisions being made by judges, court officers, etc. I learned, early on, to never go into the courtroom for a specific case that looked to be something that would be done quickly and easily dispatched thinking it would be quickly and easily dispatched. As I continued to attend these sessions and ask those involved about the process (judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, clerks, etc.), I learned that in those seemly inactive times, there might be several individual meetings and conferences going on with lawyers who not only operate in the Cherokee Court but are accountable for clients in other jurisdictions and they do not have the time to address their Cherokee clients sometimes until their court dates. Court and prosecutorial bodies are understaffed for the task at hand, making for a backlog of cases and longer wait times for justice to be served. So, as I got educated about what takes place in the Court system, my backseat driving went from complaining about how I thought they were doing it wrong to wondering how I might help them get the tools they need to better serve. Seeing what they face and being engaged enough to educate myself on their situations, is a part of my civic duty to our community and if you are a member of the community, that responsibility is yours too. There are so many facets to the justice system; the court officers, the prosecutor, the defense attorneys, the police department, the hospital, public and human health services, emergency services, and more who play a part in the overall health of our community. It isn’t as easy as it looks.

On another front, the Destination Marketing program under EBCI Commerce executed one of the most impressive light displays that the Tribe has put on in quite some time. The decision was made to focus the light displays on the Oconaluftee Island Park this year.

Now, having said that we have had some exceptional light displays in the past, financed through EBCI and Destination Marketing. At the heart of those displays was a facilitator who was part volunteer and part contractor, community member Buddy Fischer. Each year, as it came time to prepare the Christmas light presentation, Buddy would pour heart and soul into the work. He and his team would coordinate with tribal leadership. His attention to detail when it came to the lights was outstanding, to the point that he strategized where they should go and, once they were installed, he would closely monitor, replace, and repair any issues with the light displays. I was always amazed at Buddy’s dedication to the Christmas light program. Buddy always had a heart for the community. He told me, more than once, that he wanted to make sure that his grandkids and the children of all the other community members had the best community lights that he could manage. Buddy did sweat the small stuff, and we all had a better Christmas each year of his involvement because of that dedication.

This year’s Island Park display was a different challenge: competent leadership but a short timeframe (says the guy in the backseat).  Under the leadership of Sean Ross, Secretary of Commerce, who had recently assumed the role of Destination Marketing Director, then soon after was appointed to the Commerce role, a plan materialized to upgrade the Christmas light displays and make a walking tour experience on the Island Park. Coming in at the eleventh hour, Sean’s team along with some significant help from EBCI tribal programs, Commerce created a very different holiday experience. From negotiating with vendors to secure new, state-of-the-art, LED, 3D displays with computer-controlled light sequencing. Some lights even “danced” to music. A similar effort was made last year, but not quite as many displays. Timelines were so tight that shipments of light displays were arriving in late November and early December.

With a seemingly small-scale event like the Enchanted Island of Lights, the name selected for the event, backseat drivers tend to assume that it should be pulled off relatively easily and smoothly. And, from the outside, any event promoter hopes that any missteps will only be seen by those executing and not those visiting the event as guests. The truth is that no event with moving parts goes along without a hiccup or two, even with the best-laid plans. The EBCI Commerce team, despite a very short planning and execution window, pulled off a successful holiday event and even had time to add amenities like bringing back the synthetic ice-skating rink and secured great vendors like Piney Grove Beach Freeze, Dazed and Infused, and Nikki’s.  It was also good to see old, good friends like Todd and Sally Kent’s Sound of Music set up, providing holiday-themed music for folks who braved the rink. They were even able to provide a fireworks display through the services of Carolina Pyrotechics, a South Carolina-based fireworks company.

The Secretary of Commerce shared a list of the many who worked to get from a vision of the event to what we all saw and enjoyed during December.

“We had a significant amount of support on the installment and execution of power assignment from Justin French and his team at Facilities, as well as Uriah Maney and his team at Tribal Construction; and my team with Destination Marketing – Lisa (Frady), Pam (Sneed), Frieda (Simonds), Josie (Long), Katie (Cooper), and Jais (Jayson Crusenberry).

“Freida worked with our vendor (Mosca) to manage a plan or strategy for light selection and placement congruent with the natural flow and layout of the island as well as being critical in assisting in the appropriate value engineering relative to the proposed scope of the project.

“Pam, Lisa, Katie, and Jais were significant in the marketing plan, design, and logistical layout as well as creating ancillary programming to create a fuller breadth of events and programming to support the lights (ice skating, food trucks, and fireworks).”

These are people and things we can’t necessarily see from the backseat. Watching our tribal programs work under various constraints from time crunches to financial limitations to staffing challenges to a host of other obstacles as they provide services to our community, I come away with a feeling of gratitude for those willing to step up and try to make our community better. When the urge strikes to be critical of those who are actually getting the job done, it would benefit us all to remember that it is rarely as easy as it looks and maybe we shouldn’t try to drive from the backseat.