The following was provided by our At-Large Representative and Tribal Council Member, Dr. Julia Coates, explaining the origins of the At-Large Cherokee Communities.
Part II – Community organizing is a difficult undertaking. I believe Chief Smith asked me to take it on with the At Large communities because he knew a bit about my experience in the field, as well as an experience that I and many others had shared in a Cherokee community group we had belonged to in Albuquerque, NM in the 1990s.
One of my undergraduate majors was in anthropology (the other was in creative writing). While a student at San Francisco State University in the late 1980s, I had interned with two different organizations whose focuses were international – on indigenous peoples throughout the American hemisphere and their relationships to environment, development, and land. One of those organizations routinely sent its staff to summer-long trainings in grassroots community organizing, and that’s where I first understood that there was an actual body of research and theory on how to be an organizer. There was a lot more to it than simply being a community volunteer (although that’s where many organizers start out).
When I entered graduate school at the University of New Mexico in 1991, I continued my involvement with several other regional and national organizations whose focuses still remained on land, environment, development, and indigenous peoples. In every one of them, there was a constant awareness and trainings that were undertaken about how to do good organizing and development with indigenous communities, and these groups were very active in engaging tribal communities in grassroots efforts to protect lands, water, and air in ways that were culturally sensitive and supportive. This was also the subject of a lot of scholarly research in anthropology and other disciplines as well, so it was all coming together for me. My academic training was supporting my life experiences, and vice versa. Through these years, I had the opportunity to attend indigenous conferences and to do work on the ground in villages, communities, and reservations in Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and North Carolina.
And then, as member and officer myself in a Cherokee community organization in Albuquerque, I personally ended up in the middle of a textbook example of what NOT to do. And this is where I actually got my first hands-on experience of organizing with At Large Cherokees. It resulted from conflict and resistance, but from it arose a new organization of people who had bonded tightly as a result, and who remain so to this day in a group that continues to be perhaps the strongest in the entire At Large satellite network, the SouthWest Cherokee Township (CSWT) (more about this in the next installment). Some of the other satellite groups who have had similar conflicts within their organizations and have come through them (or are still grappling with them) will relate to this. But in the end, there is almost nothing like shared adversity to cement a community. So to them, hang in there!
By the time I was asked in 2006 to help other groups to form, the CSWT had been going strong for about seven years already. In addition, in 1997-98 I had also done dissertation research interviewing about 60 At Large citizens and non-citizens who claimed Cherokee heritage who belonged to three other groups in Houston and northern California that had also been formed “organically” – without any assistance from CN – just as CSWT had. With the support of a postdoctoral fellowship I held from 2004-2006 with the University of California at Davis, I was able to interview about 100 more in southern California. So I had done extensive research trying to understand how At Large Cherokees expressed their identities as Cherokees when they were not in the “homeland,” what their cultural and civic relationships to the Cherokee Nation and its communities in northeastern Oklahoma were, and what their needs and desires were. There were some clear consistencies, and other aspects of their experiences which were as different from region to region as they were with northeastern Oklahoma.
When I started the organizing process, I therefore went into it with training about the process itself and some specific research on At Large Cherokees. Still, it was a daunting undertaking. One of the biggest challenges was one that continues to test both Jack Baker and I as At Large councilors: who and where are the At Large Cherokees?? Starting in 2001, I had been teaching the Cherokee Nation History Course in areas where we had identified significant concentrations of Cherokee Nation citizens. I was able to start with those who had attended the classes. The relationships that had developed with the people who had spent 32-40 intensive hours together in those classes was an incredible and fortunate starting point. So I went back to them, many of them responded enthusiastically, and together, we were off!
Part III – One of the first tenets of community organizing is that it cannot be directed from above if we want to have any expectations of success. So in building a model for organizing the At Large Cherokee satellite groups, the first premise I operated from was that the individual organizations needed to be highly autonomous. They needed to direct themselves, rather than take direction from the Cherokee Nation. They would not be told what to do. They would settle their own disputes. They would determine their own interests and focus. Some want to be civically engaged in the larger Indian community in their region. Others want to be about learning culture. Still others want to be primarily social. Some want all of the above. Others want not much of the above, but are primarily about civic relationship with the Cherokee Nation. In short, there are a variety of ways that the groups might emerge in their focus. And all would be fine. The Cherokee Nation would not insist that the orientation of the group be dictated by the Nation in order to be part of the network, the “firewall,” that it envisioned (see the first installment, CN Update 1/17/14).
But I also knew that because of the nature of the relationship, the first most fundamental tenet of organizing would have to be violated to an extent. While the groups would be highly autonomous, they would not be completely autonomous. The interests of the Cherokee Nation would also have to be at the forefront of the effort in order that we not end up creating still more ersatz “Cherokee” groups that might eventually be dominated by non-citizens and engaging in problematic activities and/or representations of culture. A bond of interdependent benefit and support would have to be designed between the Nation and the individual groups that would keep each invested in the relationship.
So the Nation would need to establish certain requirements that would limit the autonomy of the groups to some extent. The groups would need to agree to those general limitations, but would otherwise have absolute determination over the internal functions of their organization. This would require an overarching charter from the Nation, and separate individual charters (by-laws) for and by the groups.
The individual charters were easiest to implement quickly. As it turned out, a “boilerplate” set of by-laws of an At Large Cherokee organization already existed and I was very familiar with them because I had been part of a group that had developed them about seven years earlier (in 1999). While living in Albuquerque as a grad student in the 1990s, I had become involved with a Cherokee organization there that had been formed by a Cherokee man and his Cayuga wife sometime in the 1980s. I became a member of the group in the early 1990s. During the 1995 campaign for Principal Chief, the leader of the Albuquerque Cherokee group (who had always styled himself as the “Chief” of the group) publicly endorsed Chad Smith and urged all of the group’s members to support Chad, and most did.
So the leader of the group openly used the organization as a political platform, and there were no problems with that as long as virtually all of its members agreed. But by 1999 the leader was making public endorsements of candidates that the vast majority of its members did not agree with. For those of us who publicly stated disagreement with his action, or who were openly working for the other candidate in our private capacity, we (including me) began to come under gossipy attacks by the man and particularly by his non-Cherokee wife, including attacks on web boards, what has come to be called “cyberbullying.”
Those of us who were being attacked took action to reveal to all the members of the group what was being done to us behind the scenes. Within a few months, our actions had more or less resulted in the decimation of the group. So we started a new organization, and over time virtually all of the members of the previous group switched to it. That group was and is the Cherokee SouthWest Township, and in 2007 it became the first officially chaptered At Large satellite organization of the Cherokee Nation.
But in 1999, as about eight or nine of us from that original group began to develop by-laws for the new group, one of the first things we talked about was that the new group would not make endorsements of candidates and that there would be strict mechanisms in the by-laws for dealing with anyone who launched attacks on other members of the group. These were among the fundamentals as we wanted to develop a group that would be civil, respectful, and truly for the members rather than used as political platforms for candidates. We were interested in civic issues of the Nation, so we were deliberate in deciding that discussions of issues would be allowed, but that no “official” positions would be taken by the group itself, and that differences of opinion would be honored.
On these points, the by-laws we developed stated:
“No member of CSWT shall use the name of the CSWT in political campaigns or as an endorsement of any candidate for political office in the Cherokee Nation or any other election.
“The CSWT as an organization is prohibited from campaigning for or endorsing any candidate for political office in the Cherokee Nation or any other election.”
“Membership may be terminated by the Council for the following reasons: (a) violation of the by-laws of the CSWT and/or (b) action that is detrimental to the organization.
“Only the Council has authority to investigate and/or terminate a membership. However, any member is entitled to bring to the Council a grievance concerning conduct by any member or Council member which they believe to be a violation of the by-laws and/or action that is detrimental to the organization. The Council shall investigate all grievances. As part of the investigation, the Council is obliged to receive testimony and evidence from the member in question in their own defense. A membership may be terminated only after a consensus of the members of the Council is reached. If a member of the Council is under investigation, he or she may not participate and shall not be counted in the process of reaching consensus on the question of their termination. The decision of the Council is final.”
It was decided that “actions detrimental to the organization” included personal attacks by one member on another or others. It was also defined that “consensus” meant virtually everyone on the council must agree, not just a simple majority. In this way, those who brought grievances would be protected, as well as those who were the subjects of grievances. These remain today significant aspects of the by-laws generally adopted by the 22 satellite organizations, and over the years, several groups have used these aspects of the by-laws very effectively to put a stop to internal activity that was tearing at the fabric of their organization.
Part IV – In the last installment, I mentioned a previous Cherokee organization in Albuquerque and how it had become abusive of many of its members. As those of us who defected from that group were devising by-laws for a new group, we sought provisions for our governing document to implement a more positive organization. The old group had had only four officers and sometimes there would be more than one member of a household among them, which made for a pretty ingrown situation. We felt that seven was a good Cherokee number and that our council would be expanded. We also wrote into the by-laws that only one member of a household could be on the council at a time. We also said that the majority of the council’s members must be CN citizens. We knew of Cherokee organizations, particularly a previous group in Houston, that had been overwhelmed by non-citizens and over time, the citizens had withdrawn from it. While non-citizen participation was encouraged as part of the “firewall” concept, we wanted to insure that the group remained firmly under the direction of citizens of the Cherokee Nation.
These provisions worked well for the Albuquerque group, as they started out relatively strong, essentially having already been organized for years. There have always been enough citizens to step into council positions as required, and they have had enough active members overall that there was never an issue of needing multiple people from the same family/household on the council.
But other groups have had to fudge this last requirement a bit, especially in their early building years. None of the groups has ever violated the provision that the majority of officers must be CN citizens (as it is also required by the overarching non-profit that they are chaptered under). But sometimes it has been difficult to recruit seven people to fill the initial council positions, and out of necessity some of the groups have allowed members of the same household/family to serve on their council at the same time. In most instances this has not been a problem, but good organizational principle would say that ultimately, groups should try to enforce this tenet as they grow and become stronger in order that family voting blocs and conflicts of interest are avoided.
One of the issues in the old Albuquerque organization had been that the man who was the self-styled “chief” always ostensibly stood for re-election, but in fact, no one ever ran against him, and there was an unspoken understanding that no one ever should, as he was the “chief” and that was that. Many of us did not agree with the situation where people were discouraged from taking leadership roles, and that the leadership should not be contested. In government and community organizing both, leadership dispersed across many and challenging the existing leadership are usually evidence of healthy systems.
The other issue was that the “chief” often publicly represented himself as such in the media and in his political endorsements. As the title was hierarchical and the public representations were egoistic, we considered ways to minimize these aspects in our new by-laws. We rejected titles like “chief,” “president,” and “chairperson” as coming from the top-down, hierarchical model of western culture, rather than from an indigenous model. It is too easy for the people holding those offices and for others in the group to look to them as the “leader” of the organization, when we really wanted everyone to be on equal footing and to work equally hard. Instead, we titled the officers according to the job they did – council meeting facilitator, recordskeeper, membership coordinator, treasurer, community relations, and two general meeting coordinators – and described their duties. No one was any more the head of the organization than anyone else. Each had a job to do and that’s all.
When people ran for the council, they didn’t run for a specific office, only to be on the council. To resist any tendencies of an individual to remain in one position too long, and thus begin to feel that they “owned” it, we required that the roles had to be re-assigned each year. With two-year, staggered terms, and limits after two terms, this insured that people would take turns doing several of the different jobs, and that the group would have a broad range of experience in its leadership.
To address the problem of misrepresentation, the by-laws for the new group also disallowed any member to represent themselves as a member of the organization for commercial or personal gain, or for self-promotional purposes. Besides the “chief” of the old organization, there had been at least one other non-citizen member who had engaged in questionable New Age-y activities (this was New Mexico, after all!) and had used his affiliation with the group to do so. So using one’s affiliation with the group to market Indian-themed products or services, or even to provide cultural or other kinds of presentations, is prohibited. The by-laws do allow one to state their membership in the organization on a resume.
It was a small thing, but the new by-laws also stated that donations/honoraria over $50 that were made by the group had to be approved by the entire membership. This resulted from the fact that the previous “chief” and his wife had long promoted their daughter as the group’s “princess” and had copper crowns made for her, just as the Miss Cherokee representative had, paid for out of the group’s treasury which was built through membership fees. There had never been any competition for the title (which was questionable anyway), and others in the group had been irritated that their children and grandchildren had not been considered, and everyone had bristled at the expense.
We also implemented independent and unbiased election processes for officers, as the previous “chief” and his wife had usually chosen candidates and urged others in the group to vote for their choices, deliberately undermining the other people who also threw their names into the ring.
These are among the most significant aspects of the by-laws of the 22 At Large satellite communities today. They were fashioned after numerous meetings of eight or ten people over several months and much concerted discussion about how to counter the potential for our new group to become as distorted as the previous one had been. The Cherokee SouthWest Township will celebrate its fifteenth year in existence later in 2014, and it is perhaps the largest of the groups. It meets monthly, with anywhere from 30-50 people present at each meeting. It has a good mix of citizens and non-citizens, and for many years has produced a 12-20 page monthly newsletter. The members of the group, with whom I worked in 1999 to fashion by-laws for a strong, compassionate, independent organization, tell me that in 15 years, they have made only one revision to the by-laws, lowering the percentage of ballots that must be returned in order to validate an election to 50% + 1.
Although the 22 satellite groups have never been required to follow these by-laws, all have adopted some version of them, even though making some revisions to tailor them to their specific situation. Thus the 22 groups function with a fairly consistent set of governing principles across all, and in accordance with the best practices of community organizing.