Tribe to conduct census
For the first time in 22 years, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will conduct a census of its tribal members.
On Dec. 8, the EBCI Tribal Council unanimously passed a resolution submitted by the office of Principal Chief Richard Sneed authorizing an electronic tribal census as well as an incentive of $100 per participating person. According to Anita Lossiah, policy analyst for the EBCI, the census will be carried out this year.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is important for your tribe,” said Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy. “It’s important to your children and your grandchildren and their children. And the reason I say that is because this is 2022 and it’s time for us to know exactly how many members of this tribe are alive and well.”
The tribe’s Charter and Governing Document, the EBCI’s supreme legal document analogous to a constitution, mandates that a tribal census be carried out once every 10 years, with the results used to calibrate the weighted voting system used in Tribal Council. The body has 12 members, but each member’s vote has a different value according to the population of his or her township. Votes from Birdtown and Wolfetown representatives, for example, are worth 12 votes, while Snowbird/Cherokee County and Painttown are weighted at six. Representatives from Yellowhill and Big Cove control seven votes apiece.
However, no tribal census has been conducted since 2001. Though the topic has periodically come up in Tribal Council, no census has occurred — not even after a unanimous vote in 2017 to approve $273,000 for the project. The amount was intended to cover a contract with the U.S. Census Bureau to manage the census and pay for the local workers who would carry it out.
In a work session held Dec. 6, Lossiah said the census did not take place in 2017 because the tribe missed the deadline for completing requirements to start the process. At that point, the Census Bureau had to commit its resources toward the 2020 federal census and could not assist the tribe. Then the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, further delaying the process.
“Now (we’re) basically getting on track to the list of things to do and identifying some of the work that needs to be done,” Lossiah said. “Going through the pandemic, electronic processes for things were really ramped up.”
The tribe expects that conducting the census electronically will be less expensive and yield more information than traditional means. The census will include all tribal members, not just those who live on the Qualla Boundary. The process is expected to take five months, with one month for education and promotion followed by a three-month period during which the questionnaire will be live online. In the fifth month, the team will finalize the data for viewing.
During the Dec. 6 work session, Sneed and Tribal Council had a robust discussion about the implications census results could have for the weighted voting system. While the tribe currently lacks hard data on the number and distribution of its citizens, it’s believed that more tribal members live off the Qualla Boundary than on it. Off-Boundary members can still vote in elections — the law allows them to register in the township where they last resided, or if they never lived on tribal land, in a township based on their parents’ or ancestors’ residence — but they can’t run for office.
Sneed and McCoy, who are often at loggerheads in Council chambers, found themselves in agreement over McCoy’s assertion that Tribal Council should one day add at-large seats for members who don’t live on tribal land.
“At some point a citizen who lives off-Boundary is going to say, ‘Hey, wait a second. I’m being disenfranchised here,’” Sneed said.
Such a solution would require a change to the Charter — or approval of a constitution — and won’t be brought about by the census itself. However, the census results could inform the discussion around what changes, if any, should be made to Cherokee’s legislative systems to better address the tribe’s current reality.
The tribal Charter, last amended in 1986, “absolutely did not take into consideration the economic powerhouse that the Eastern Band is today,” Sneed said, adding that it didn’t anticipate a time when so many members would live away from tribal lands.
The census results will be used for more than adjusting the voting weights on Tribal Council. Specific demographic information is important for many purposes, including pursuit of federal grant dollars and administration of tribal services.
While Lossiah declined to provide a final version of the questionnaire that will accompany the census, an earlier version attached to the census resolution that Tribal Council tabled in November had 26 questions. These included everything from typical demographic questions about the ages, incomes, education levels and professions of people in the household to questions specific to the Cherokee people, such as whether anyone in the household speaks the Cherokee language, whether the respondent knows their clan and the enrollment status of household members. The survey also includes questions targeted at understanding social dynamics in the community, such as whether the respondent is caring for children other than their biological children and whether the household has access to a vehicle, housing, health insurance, broadband and fresh food.
“I just want y’uns to quickly come in here with any amendment that you need for any type of financial anything that’s going to help get this project done,” McCoy said prior to the vote Dec. 8. “I think it’s long overdue.”