A Cherokee Perspective on Voting in Tribal Elections

Steve Russell

Many of us just vote for our relatives.  While my living relatives are many, and one even holds high appointive office, I have not been faced with that prospect.  Judging from history, voting for my relatives would not have gone well for my current opinions.

My birth namesake, Stephen Teehee, was Deputy Principal Chief in the Downing Administration, which did not reflect my views of good policy.

My great-grandfather, Henry Teehee, was a prominent Cherokee Baptist minister.  The Cherokee Baptists do not reflect my views of good policy, and the reasons do not differ as between Indian and non-Indian attempts to govern by religion.

When a non-Indian starts claiming Divine authority for his or her policy preferences, hang on to your wallet.

When an Indian claims tribal tradition, do the same.  Traditions are habits and how have your habits been working out for you?

On the other hand, traditions are all that separate one tribe from another and to abandon tradition is to abandon who you are and become just another special pleading ethnic minority.  I get that.

What does not follow from the necessity to protect our cultural heritage is the idea that a tribal pol needs to “think like a (insert tribe here).”

There are only two ways to think, well and poorly.

Until somebody corrects me, I can only discover three ways to know the truth and they vary in their value to government.

Truth by revelation is infallible.  The problem with it is the same revelation seldom comes to all humans simultaneously.  So we get Catholics and Protestants killing each other over whether it is possible to approach God directly or only through the One True Church.  We get Sunni and Shia killing each other over who was the proper successor to the Prophet.  And we get the Ghost Dance.

Truth by deduction is also infallible, but only if the major and minor premises in your deductive syllogism are correct.  That is a lot harder than it sounds, and some people claim that if you reason back by deduction to First Principles, you arrive at premises that must be taken on faith.  I do not think so but I firmly believe it would be a better world if every human would give that task a try.

Truth by induction is not just fallible—it’s messy as all get-out.  It’s our understanding of inductive reasoning that leads us to respect elders.  An elder has the ability to reason from the general to the specific in a more efficient way because the elder has seen more cases and watched more outcomes and learned from every one.  The elder does not reinvent the cognitive wheel.  The elder is the human embodiment of “practice makes perfect,” but usually with sense enough not to claim perfection.

Of course, few elders want to have any truck with tribal government.

For most of us, the task of improving tribal government involves breaking patterns of behavior because few of us can claim that our current situation is working out in an optimal manner, to put it delicately.  In the policy argument in Congress over expansion of the remedies available under the Indian Civil Rights Act, it’s said that one’s position can be predicted by how recently one has been screwed by tribal government.

Looking around Indian Country for my entire lifetime, I see some governments getting better and some lurching from one crisis to the next.  Back issues of this publication tell the many stories.

A better test for office than traditionalism would be does the candidate participate in tribal government because of material or solidary incentives?  Instead of what the candidate will give us, it is much more important to know what the candidate will ask of us.

Is the purpose of tribal government to insure the cultural survival of the tribe or to exact the greatest possible price from the colonists for killing it off?

Government for material incentives is the root of what political scientists call “the resource curse.”  A source of money presents itself and a government can suddenly focus on nothing beyond maximizing the gain and distributing the money to enough people to remain in power.  This is general theory in political science, applicable to city, state, and tribal government.

The difference between solidary and material incentives is the difference between the casino tribes that fund the college education of every enrolled child and those that guarantee a new truck and a monthly income when a child comes of age.  It’s the difference between opening a new clinic or a new hotel.

What would an elder do if most elders cared about tribal government?  It’s hard to say, but I think it would be more than voting for jobs regardless of qualifications, per caps, or electing relatives.

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zelbe1's picture
Its more a judge of great leadership skills and temperment on ideals that makes for good leadership, not who is your family. This has been proven time and again and yet, tribes suffer because their leadership is just not there. I agree that education helps, but I also know that education can be used for corruption. I am pro-education and progressive, but also tied to traditions. Sometimes tradition and common sense wins out and other times progressive thinking is needed. Indian nations should be further ahead than what we see in our tribal governments and many times our own families work against the complete tribes interests only to consolidate money and decision making for the minority at the sacrifice of the majority. The worst natives can do is nothing.
softbreeze's picture
Things are difficult for tribes partly because they've had to move away from doing things in a traditional manner. Most if not all native nations made decision by consensus, and no one was over or above anyone else. Everything was shared, and materialism was not a valued belief system. Forced cultural assimilation required recognized nations to have a constitution, and a way of governing that is hierarchal. This is what has led to the problems we see today.
ndnlady's picture
Well, from this Cherokee's perspective, it seems a number of respected elders DO care about their tribal government, as they have publicly endorsed the re-election campaign of Chad Smith. These include Benny Smith, Woody Ross, Lizzie Whitekiller, Foreman Ross, James Squirrel and Lorene Drywater. On the other hand, the new, thankfully interim, Principal Chief said yesterday that the only reason a tribal government exists is to deliver services. Cherokees have a choice, very much along the lines that Professor Russell discusses here.