COMMENTARY: Good governance

by Feb 14, 2024OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


It’s that time of year again. Whatever media you choose, you are seeing more and more political advertisements, sometimes back-to-back repeats of themselves. The first stop in the race for coveted seats of power in our township, county, state, and federal government races is the North Carolina Primary Election.

Like you, my mailbox is filled with literature from candidates and special interest groups for various government-elected positions. I am getting email after email in the same line. I spend a good deal of my time blocking robocalls on my phone from one of the hundreds of candidates.  When I go to public events, I shy away from tables set up by candidates trying to lure the voting public to their lair to hypnotize victims into voting for them.

Elections off the Qualla Boundary are much more labor-intensive than tribal elections. Here, candidates are community members, and the voting population knows them, many on a first-name basis. Community members will even know the families of candidates and may even be members of their families. The gossip mill still puts out propaganda about this or that candidate, but with a little digging, you as a voter, can usually get to the bottom of what a candidate is or is not.

Those outside elections are a different bear altogether. Most candidates are not tribal members and do not visit the Boundary unless they are coming here to solicit votes. I find it mildly amusing that incumbents and candidates file into the Council House during election time to talk about how much they care about the causes of our tribe but are never seen nor heard from by the people otherwise. Now I know that quite a bit of dialogue occurs between tribal government officials and other government leaders in efforts to advance our tribal goals. After all, we bought a million-dollar condo in Washington to facilitate those high-level discussions. But we don’t get to listen in on those conversations and not a whole lot of reporting comes from those meetings. We rarely hear who we met with and even if we do, we, as a community, hear even far less about the subjects of the discussions and the outcomes.

So, at election time, it is up to us to do our research. The selection of these outside government officials is too important for us not to take seriously.

The right for Natives to vote was a long hard-fought battle. Just a quick refresher from a Native blog (Native American Roots): “Toward the end of the nineteenth century the United States government decided that American Indians, like immigrants from other countries, should be fully assimilated into American society. However, a series of court rulings and legal opinions declared that not only were American Indians not citizens, but they could not become citizens with Congressional action. In 1887 Congress passed the Dawes Act which allowed Indians who had taken allotments to become citizens. Following World War I, Congress passed an act making all Indians who had served in the military during the war citizens. Finally, in 1924 Congress passed legislation declaring all Indians to be citizens.

“In 1920, a large number of Eastern Cherokee-including Cherokee women-registered to vote. As a result of Cherokee participation in the election, Republicans won almost every office in Jackson County by narrow margins. The Democrats protested the election results claiming that the Cherokee were not eligible to vote. As a result, Cherokee votes were thrown out on the basis that the Cherokee were non-citizen wards of the United States.”

Time after time and in the face of multiple Congressional directives, North Carolina continued to deny the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voting rights.

“In 1930, Eastern Cherokee leader Henry M. Owl was denied the right to register to vote. The registrar refused to register Indians because they were not citizens. In response, Congress passed yet another act once again reaffirming citizenship for the Eastern Cherokee. Local newspapers protested Congressional interference with local affairs. Despite the explicit and repeated directives from Congress, county registrars continued to deny Cherokees the right to vote.

“A report by the Solicitor General in 1937 found that North Carolina denied Indians the right to vote claiming that Indians were illiterate. The superintendent of the Cherokee Agency reported ‘We have had Indian graduates of Carlisle, Haskell, and other schools, in stances much better educated than the registrar himself, turned down because they did not read to his satisfaction.’

“Following World War II, county registrars in North Carolina refused to register Eastern Cherokee war veterans to vote. The Cherokee appealed the decisions to the governor and attorney general, but nothing was done.

“After lawsuits by Indian veterans in Arizona and New Mexico declared Indians were citizens and had the right to vote, resistance to Indian voting in North Carolina was reduced and the Eastern Band began to participate in American Democracy.”

Do we really want to take what our ancestors did for granted? In looking at the historical timeline of tribal voting rights in North Carolina, it was our great-grandparents who began to fight the good fight of standing for our right to vote in the North Carolina elections.  Their persistence is why we can vote in the 2024 North Carolina Primary.

More “modern” reasons for us to step up to the polls are that we have great opportunities to make a difference and to affect change in the current political environment. The country and state are almost equally divided in ideology. The difference in a vote on a particular candidate or issue may be settled by as little as hundreds of votes. Putting officials into office who support the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will depend on all of us getting to the polls and voting for those candidates who have openly expressed their support and commitment to and for us.

On our part, that may take some digging to determine. For tribal government, it might be a good idea to provide the constituency with a voter guide to help us as these municipal, state, and federal elections roll around. We sometimes hear our leadership endorse specific candidates during public meetings, but a comprehensive guide would be a good starting point for us as we make decisions on candidates at the town, county, state, and federal levels. Empower us to make good governance decisions. Part of the tribe’s overall strategy for lobbying should include giving the people the tools that they need to help in the process.

And we need to step up as a people when it comes to these elections. It is short-sighted to think we can’t make a difference or that it just doesn’t matter. Our ancestors certainly didn’t think it was a waste of time to obtain the right for us.

Beyond the fact that even on-Boundary tribal members also reside in a municipality that has at least some outside governance, the people we vote for or against could dictate things like gaming compacts and federal recognition. In this election, we will be selecting a North Carolina Governor and the President of the United States, among others. The North Carolina Primary Election is a winnowing process, narrowing the field. Even more reason for us as tribal members to act now, when our votes will have the most impact.