Our reporter is not a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, but by my estimation that’s totally irrelevant. Many tribal members use our paper — and the other newspapers in this region — as a source of information. Those tribal members care about and want a voice in what their government is doing. They are the ones who deserve to know how the Tribal Council conducts its business, and they are the ones who should be irate and insulted by the fact that their elected representatives think it’s OK to intimidate the press.
Covering Cherokee Tribal Council has always been difficult. Unlike other public bodies who spend our tax dollars, Cherokee is considered a sovereign nation and therefore exempt from North Carolina public meeting laws. So while it has its own municipal code and has adopted a Free Press Act with regard to tribal publications, it does not currently have a Constitution and therefore can legally kick our reporter— or any other reporter — out of its meetings. The first time it happened to our reporter, the decision came with an added caveat: a police escort out of the council house.
Let’s be clear about this: the Cherokee Tribal Council meetings are televised. That means our reporter was able to go and watch the meeting and report on it from watching it on TV. But that’s not the same as being there. That’s why congressional reporters don’t rely on C-SPAN to do their reporting.
Also, in looking over the tribe’s municipal code, I found out that the Tribal Council also has the authority to stop televising its meetings if they deem such action necessary. That means the council has the ability to totally shut down media coverage whenever it wants.
And let’s be clear about something else: the reason Kays was asked to leave the council room is because of her reporting on the pay raises that were recently passed by the Tribal Council. The raises were very controversial and very substantial. We have not weighed in with an opinion on the raises have not passed judgment on whether they were merited or not. No, we’ve just reported what happened. And the Tribal Council, by forcing Kays to vacate the council room, has chosen to “shoot the messenger.”
That’s a time-honored practice of those who don’t like media coverage: they shut down the media’s access to information, attack its integrity or try to intimidate reporters, editors and publishers. Usually, though, we read about that stuff happening in totalitarian regimes in faraway places, not right here in Western North Carolina in small-town Cherokee to a small newspaper like The Smoky Mountain News.
Many of those now running for the chief’s office and for Tribal Council have raised the issue of government openness as one that needs to be addressed. Members of the Eastern Band can only hope these candidates are serious, that they will invite public discourse and public scrutiny once in office. Openness always leads to better government.
Over the last two decades, Cherokee has established itself as an economic force to be reckoned with and respected. This newspaper — and others — has praised the tribe’s use of casino profits for health care initiatives, cultural and language preservation, educational programs and more. Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee have every right to be proud of what they’ve accomplished — except when it comes to government transparency and openness. There is still work to do in this arena, and we can only hope that tribal members demand as much from their leaders.