COMMENTARY: What will it take?

by Mar 22, 2024OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


During the campaign seasons, the word “transparency” gets worn out. Candidates drive home their desire to keep the people informed and that they have a “right to know”. Well, we actually don’t have a right to know because we don’t have a constitution. And the Charter and Governing Document doesn’t mention any rights other than to have a communal census every 10 years, which hasn’t happened (or maybe it has).

The purpose stated in the Charter for the census is to ensure that the tribal communities (six) have equitable representation on Tribal Council. The census is supposed to determine the respective voting weight of each Tribal Council seat. The more people you have in your community, the bigger percentage weight your Tribal Council representative is supposed to have. The census is supposed to help adjust that weight if population shifts occur from community to community.

People may move around quite a bit in a decade. People are born. People pass away. People decide that they want to move to one community or another. So, when you miss a census or two, it may have a significant impact on those seats and your representation. There was at least an attempt at a tribal census in 2023, but there seems to be some confusion as to exactly what took place. I have made several requests for information on that effort, but the response is either that they don’t know or, more often, there is no response at all. The effort was approved by Tribal Council and ratified by the then administration, in the form of a resolution. The constituency was given a hundred bucks per response to the census/survey. I sometimes forget forms that I fill out, but I always remember when I receive a C-note for filling out one.

We’ve talked about it till we are all blue in the face: In the absence of facts, the community, or many members of it, will speculate. An information vacuum breeds gossip. Putting up a wall between people and information, particularly information that they are entitled to know, only pushes people to attempt to breach the wall or find a different, dangerous path around it.

The Public Records Ordinance (Cherokee Code Chapter 132) and the Free Press Act (Cherokee Code Chapter 75 Article 2) were established with the thought in mind that an informed populus is an empowered populus. Now, we have also discussed what I call “situational truth”, which is our tendency to form our belief based on our perception of facts. For example, a government might think it is being very forthcoming with information for its people because they see it from a governmental perspective. Some things are necessarily not-for-public consumption. However, the determination of what is indeed not-for-public can and will be defined differently by each sitting elected official. And it will be the majority of the sitting officials who decide what we as a community will see and what we will not.

Which brings us back to the weighted vote of Tribal Council. As we have stated previously (many times) the Charter does not provide for civil rights in our community, except for a census to facilitate proper representative voting power for elected officials from each community, and, by reference only, the membership’s right to vote. The Charter discusses elections to be held but does not identify you and me as voters. That is done in the Cherokee Code (Section 161 Article 2). The Code section of law is primarily created by elected officials, which may be modified without a tribe wide referendum. I am not saying that is wrong. I am saying that those privileges outlined in Code are just that, and not rights. By definition, a right is something that cannot be taken from you without your consent.

Many people look at driving in the state of North Carolina as a “right”. After all, it is in the North Carolina state statutes. But your ability to legally drive in North Carolina is dependent on your adherence to the statutes created by the government. If you would like to test whether driving in NC is a right or a privilege, just violate one of the many stipulations in state statutes that are a requirement to keep that ability to legally drive. For example, say you decide you no longer want to drive in the right lane and instead choose to exercise your “right” to drive in the left lane. Do as the Aussie’s do, so-to-speak. You will quickly learn that what you thought was a right was actually a privilege granted by the government and what the government giveth, it can and will taketh away.

Virtually every law we have as a tribe is via the privileges of Cherokee Code. The discussions in Tribal Council when Charter and Code are debated typically end with “Charter always trumps Code”. Well, the Charter doesn’t necessarily depict accurately our “rights” either, because we are operating government with no surety that the voting weights of the Council seats are accurate. And, because of that, you and I do not know if we and our individual communities are being properly represented in government. And I don’t know if I am hearing a virtual yawn of apathy or seeing a virtual shudder of fear when I ask you all what it will take for us to demand what has been laid out as a right of the people. What value is a right that is ignored without consequence? Just my opinion, it becomes just another privilege that probably should be relegated to the Code or removed from law at all. Either the community gets it, or they don’t.

We need, the government needs, more stringent accountability. It was amazing to me that a tribe of 16,000 could not mount a tribe-wide census when, at the time of the second 10-year missed deadline for a census, the federal government mounted a census of 331,900,000 American citizens, and some unknown number of non-citizens. And they didn’t offer a hundred dollars each to get folks to participate. Twenty years plus behind, which equates to roughly 11 Tribal Council and five Executive election cycles. The last ratified tribal census was in 2001.

There is no way that the tribal census should be a back burner issue. There is no way that referendums on elected official terms and a tribal constitution should be back burner issues. And discussions of our government and community should not be hidden behind walls of secrecy unless that meet specific criteria in law that are set by the people. We, the Principal People, should have a Bill of Rights, whether added to the Charter now or incorporated into a constitution later. We show a warrior spirit in many other things that are far less important and pressing.

I understand the challenges that are ahead regarding the people’s right to know versus the protection of the people’s information. We need to move cautiously forward, in a transparent process, that will ensure that all tribal members have ready access to the information that should be public and have decisive input in the process of law governing how, when, and where we receive information. Decisions should not be made based on fear or individual instant gratification, but as part of a sober strategy to position and protect our tribe for a better future. And we must strive to find the place that is closest to both the government’s and the community’s perception of truth.