It’s election year again in the Cherokee Nation, but every year’s an election year somewhere and democracy is not a spectator sport. You either roll up your pants legs and wade in political waste products or you let others make critical decisions for your life.
This is an off year, meaning the Principal Chief is not up, and therefore it’s arguable that nobody outside the Cherokee Nation ought to care. I disagree and suggest that all of Indian country should care about the process, if not the candidates.
My own choice is that I must vote to select an “at large” member of the Tribal Council, one who represents those we call “outlanders,” persons living outside what was our rez before the US stole it.
Tribes outside of Oklahoma need to know that Oklahoma tribes do not retain a land base in the same way you do, but we all have some land in federal trust, meaning it is not on the state and local tax rolls and our tribal governments can make laws governing it. We have in common with Indians in other states “checkerboarding,” Indian land interspersed with land under state jurisdiction in patterns so complicated that both states and tribes have felt pressure to make compacts that allow law enforcement to function where jurisdictional lines are invisible.
The “at-large” council seat, then, represents those of us who reside outside the “Cherokee Nation jurisdictional area,” which is a big chunk of northeastern Oklahoma. There are expatriate Cherokee communities of sufficient size to draw in person visits from candidates for Principal Chief in Texas, New Mexico, California, and other states limited only by the size of the candidate’s bankroll. The at large Council candidates don’t attract enough money for that much travel.
Why would tribal candidates attract money at all? As in many other Indian nations, tribal government is the largest single employer of Cherokees. But the Cherokee Nation is also the largest single employer in several Oklahoma counties, period. We swing an economic stick that exceeds our jurisdictional boundaries. This is true of some other Indian nations as well.
Another fact that binds us with other Indian nations is the choice all our children have to make: stay or go? Other tribes should pay attention to the political consequences of what our children decide, consequences we see playing out in the current election.
At the end of the shooting part of the Indian wars, we were a rural people, reduced to dependency on the federal government more or less on purpose. Our lives were complicated by waves of policy changes underlying federal Indian control law, but rural children in the US generally had to decide whether to stay or go as farming came to require fewer bodies and jobs migrated to the cities.
Our choices are further complicated by the imperative to preserve our cultures. Languages and customs are joint enterprises, not individual ones. Use them or lose them. Still, the difference between working and not working is powerful, and so most tribes to this day have large and growing outlander populations.
Some Indian nations are, like my own, constitutional republics. Others retain the tribal council as board of directors model thoughtfully provided by the BIA when applying the Indian Reorganization Act. In either case, what to do with outlanders is a pressing issue that will only become more important.
One Oklahoma tribe allows outlanders to vote but does not allow candidates other than incumbents to acquire voter lists. This tends to keep the same folks in power.
One Oklahoma tribe sued a political dissenter in tribal court for libel. Since the dissenter lacked the funds to litigate with the government, the government won a judgment, which could not be enforced on the outlander as long as he stayed away. The outstanding judgment, unfairly acquired, functioned as a banishment against a government critic.
My own tribe allows outlanders to vote and also allows all candidates access to voter lists. The election going on now is a clinic in the problems that remain after dealing with the obvious.
Last election, we had an unfortunate choice. The incumbent Principal Chief, Chad Smith, was a reformer when elected. He had exceeded his political shelf life and become a master of cronyism. His opponent, Bill John Baker, was a major player in the scandal that got Smith elected in the first place.
I hoped that Baker had learned from the scandal, but after talking with him, it became clear that either he learned nothing or could not articulate what he had learned. Still, he prevailed.
Any hope that tribal government would give up factions for merit is long gone. The Tribal Council remains split between two factions, neither of which cares to put tribal interests above the interests of their faction. Sound familiar?
So we outlanders have a Smith candidate, playing obstructionist for the government in exile. And we have the Bill John Baker candidate, who is campaigning with more money than he knows what to do with. He has put out a blizzard of colorful literature and engages people to make direct calls for him who know nothing about the election.
What about the others?
We’ve got candidates who promise per capita payments, an obvious impossibility given the number of citizens and a dumb idea if it were possible.
We’ve got candidates who promise outlanders Cherokee Nation car tags when they live not only outside Cherokee jurisdiction, but also outside of Oklahoma.
We have a candidate who doesn't say a word about what he will or will not do but carries the burden of having served in the Oklahoma state legislature, an undistinguished body in which he did not distinguish himself.
We have a candidate with a long record as a crank. What can you say about a candidate who doubts the Cherokee Nation exists?
A front group for the Smith candidate sent out a nastygram complaining that three of the candidates "did not even vote" in the last election for Principal Chief. Leaving aside the underhanded nature of attacking with a front group, I can't get too excited about not voting in the last election, because I came within a hair of not voting myself. It was personalities, not public policy, and an old dispute played out all over again. Not a happy choice, and I denounced both candidates publicly before holding my nose and choosing.
I only know these things because I have family and friends back home. The Cherokee Phoenix, having gotten seriously burned in the crisis that brought Smith to power, never steps outside of reporting the public statements of the players. The factions on the Council are invisible to outlanders and no reporting dares scratch the surface with, say, voting pattern analysis.
It was part of Smith’s original reform agenda to set up legal protections for the Cherokee Phoenix staff, which had been interfered with by the faction currently in power. I doubt that they are still chastened, so either they lack the skills for analysis or they define analysis as beyond their writ. This is important because the Phoenix is the only conduit many outlanders have for homeland information.
So what do these antics of the white Indians have to do with real Indians?
If the real Indians find refuge in blood quantum, the ending will write itself, but without regard for blood quantum, Indians are not immune from the choice every rural child has to make: Stay or go.
The children must go temporarily for a top shelf education. Some of them must go permanently to find work that matches their abilities. It should go without saying that, the longer they stay away, the more likely they will marry out.
Who leaves? The best and the brightest. Tribal governments can’t control that, but they can have influence on who comes back or at least remains connected. You can’t bring them back with per caps or license tags, and the Indian Health Service is far inferior to the health insurance they can earn for themselves.
The price of cutting outlander ties to their roots can be stated in emotional terms, but tribal governments had best understand it in political and economic terms. Tribal governments remain surrounded by hostile white people who claim Indian sovereignty is a vestige of racial privilege, an anachronism, a public money pit.
That’s the fight. We didn’t pick it, but that’s the fight.
Some say the outlanders have chosen not to be Indian. Let them go and forget them in the tribal sense. Leave their ties as private, family matters. Don’t let them vote because they don’t have to live with the outcomes.
Some say let them vote, but make them come home to do it. No absentee ballots. If they didn’t make enough money to travel on Election Day, they should not have left.
It is not opinion but rather fact that, for most tribes, the outlander vote will grow over time and overwhelm the homeland vote, if and only if the outlanders choose to vote. Most do not. Some say that’s good. Those who care to vote are better informed.
It’s not my purpose to preach a position but rather the necessity to take one. I’ve written elsewhere that outlanders are a tax base never tapped; outlanders are a political base seldom aroused to defend Indian interests; outlanders are so much more than a backwater in the indigenous gene pool.
Whether outlanders shall vote and how they shall become informed are issues critical to the political survival of tribal nations. Voting is a tiny part of tribal citizenship, a small thread in the web that must connect us to our origins. If we, as tribal peoples, cannot construct and maintain that web of concern, then the homelands become nothing but holding pens for those the conqueror considers too dull or too timid to embrace assimilation.
The Indian wars did not end when they quit shooting at us. “Indians not taxed” in the US Constitution referred to the unassimilated, those maintaining tribal relations. Tribal governments must maintain and expand the web of concern that is or ought to be the reason they exist, to maintain some minimal tribal relations. We didn’t pick the fight, but that’s the fight.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.