Many of us have grown up listening to the adults around us complain about their representative government. For me, it seems that every family gathering has the adults talking about politics. I have heard their dissatisfaction with both – tribal, state and federal government. It’s interesting though that if you stop and ask those same adults who are unhappy with the status quo whether or not they voted in the last election, most will say something like “My vote won’t change anything,” “I just vote for the lesser of two evils,” “I only vote for candidates that can do something for me.” It’s no wonder young Native children who grow up hearing this attitude find it difficult to move away from it when they themselves reach voting age.
Rephrasing the famous words of the late John F. Kennedy, ask not what your tribe can do for you, but rather, what you can do for your tribe. Is it too much to ask that we vote for the greater good of all instead of our own private agendas? The next generation of tribal officials will not bring real change if we remain content to repeat the complacent attitudes and actions of previous generations.
During my research for this blog I encountered many eye-opening experiences that made me understand the high level of frustration faced by many tribal members who are actively interested in making tribal governments more accountable and accommodating. Calls made to tribal government offices went unanswered and voicemails and emails were never returned. Promises to provide interviews were broken, and a survey put out through our tribal newspaper resulted in only one response! Is voter malaise just a characteristic of our community? Do our members really feel so un-empowered? Does corruption, favoritism, and narcissism play a role in this dynamic?
My tribe has taken admirable action in the last decade to protect our language by establishing an immersion school, has made important strides in protecting the natural resources used by our artisans, and most impressive, established a financial education course to help advise young adults receiving their gaming trust funds at age 18. Little though, has been done to educate our young members about their tribal government and their responsibility to participate in the process of selecting representation.
As one mentor recently urged me, it’s sometimes difficult to stay persistent, but persistence is what it takes to create positive change despite obstacles you may face. It may just be that we are losing potentially effective leadership due to frustration levels with the voting public itself. This is definitely something for each of us to consider as we approach the next tribal elections in our individual communities and nations. For me, it’s back to the phone and computer first thing tomorrow!
Written by We R Native blog author Constance Owl, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in western North Carolina.