Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Tribe In The News: Mohegan In 1996

Feather News

A tribal member was going through some older papers he held onto and passed a few of them on to me last week. I posted two of the newspaper clippings below.

The following two articles appeared in The Day newspaper on October 3, 1996, shortly before the Mohegan Sun Casino opened. The reporter, Virginia Groark, is the daughter of then-lieutenant governor of the state of Connecticut. Roland Harris was the chairman of the Tribal Council at the time.

Since the articles appeared in 1996, council meetings were opened back up to tribal members, agendas for council meetings are now posted, laws are now available to tribal members, a tribal newsletter is now published, salaries of elected officials are now both fixed and disclosed, and I since donated the 1-800-MOHEGAN phone number to the Tribe.

More still needs to be done to ensure accountability in our elected officials and that rights of tribal members are respected.

The editor of the Feather News, Ken Davison, is mentioned frequently in the article.

Although the act of tribal members talking to newspapers has been a controversial topic in some circles, one thing is undisputable: newspaper articles documenting an active political history in the Tribe became a key factor in the Tribe receiving its federal recognition (these articles were published after federal recognition).

Mohegan Seeks To Open Tribal Government
By Virginia Groark
The Day newspaper
October 3, 1996

When the Mohegan Indians adopted a revised tribal constitution last spring, only 33 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots.

Kenneth Davison, a tribal member who lives in Pennsylvania, wanted to know why the turnout was so low. He asked for a copy of the tribe's ordinances governing elections, a request he had made previously. Tribal officials turned him down again.

Davison, an independent financial consultant, said the election ordinance is just one of several government documents that tribal officials have refused to let him review.

Concerned that there are few checks and balances in the Mohegans' government, Davison is proposing 10 ordinances he says will expand the rights of tribal members and increase the accountability of elected tribal officials.

Mohegan government is made up of two branches. The Tribal Council is the legislative body. The Council of Elders is the judicial body and constitutional review board. The elders handle issues such as disputes between tribal members.

Meetings of both groups are closed to tribal members.

"I think a lot of (my proposals) would be beneficial to the tribe and at least the Tribal Council might take a look at it," said Davison, who ran unsuccessfully for a council seat last year. "Some people want to keep it behind closed doors, but I think there is a lot less to be gained by avoiding some of the issues rather than just talking about them honestly."

The tribe is addressing some of Davison's concerns and is compiling a list of ordinances that will be available to tribal members, said Tribal Vice Chairwoman Jayne Fawcett.

She said the overwhelming task of opening a casino and the tribe's lack of money has prevented the Mohegans from implementing procedures to disseminate some information to tribal members.

And some fo the complaints may stem from members' lack of familiarity with the tribe's system, which is based on Mohegan traditions, she said.

"We do things the way we always did," Fawcett said. "The way the rule was on Mohegan Hill, there were no written rules. You did what the elders said. Whether you liked it or not, what they said was the law and that is what is traditional.

"For those who were raised traditionally that kind of attitude is easy to accept," she said. "For those who were not or who are more used to the non-Indian government, they look at it a different way."

Carleton Eichelberg, chairman of the Council of Elders, said it is a cultural difference. "We're not a white man's government," he said. "We're an Indian government."

Davison said his proposed ordinances are based on his concerns and on comments he has heard from other tribal members, whom he would not identify.

He proposes the creation of a five-member oversight commission with subpeona powers that would investigate issues such as employee grievances, contracts, election fraud and charitable contributions.

An employment rights act would set the minimum starting salary for tribal members at the casino or in tribal government at $30,000 and all tribal members would be notified of job openings by mail within one day of the posting.

Another proposal would require the tribe to take 20 percent of its net casino profits and distribute it to tribal members.

Many of the ordinances are related to accessibility of information for tribal members. For example, Davison believes that Tribal Council meetings should be open to all tribal members.

Fawcett said the meetings traditionally have been closed but the council decided to open them to tribal members in 1995. It has closed them again because of the sensitive nature of many issues being discussed, she said.

Tribal members can learn about what happens at the meetings through the minutes , said Fawcett. But Davison said the minutes are not mailed to tribal members, who have to go to the tribal government office in Montville during business hours to read them. One of his ordinances would require that all minutes be mailed to tribal members.

Davison is also concerned that there is no way for tribal members to offer opinions on issues being considered by the council. Agendas for the council meetings are not posted, so there is no way to know what the council is discussing. He thinks the council should send out proposed ordinances to all tribal members so they can send in written comments.

Fawcett said agendas are not posted because the council never knows when it will meet. As it rushes to make sure the csino opens on time, the council sometimes meets three times a day, she said.

"Many of the things we are deciding have to be decided very, very quickly in order for us to open on time," Fawcett said.

The tribe can't afford to send out all ordinances to tribal members, she said. "The tribe recently hired Mohegan Gay Story Hamilton to put out a newsletter weekly or biweekly to keep tribal members informed of government activities.

Fawcett is not sure how soon the newsletter will be published. Once it is, tribal members will be able to read about the government and submit written comments to the council, she said.

Tribal members can also comment on issues and the council's actions at tribal meetings, which are held on the second Sunday of each month, Fawcett said.

"We have a tribal meeting once a month and that is where we disseminate information and where we talk about a lot of these issue(s)," Fawcett said. "The place to bring up these issues is at the tribal meeting."

Under one of Davison's proposals, the tribe would be required to hold a meeting at least monthly. Agendas would be sent out no later than one week before a meeting. Tribal members should have 90 minutes to address issues, he said.

Davison also thinks the tribe should have an information phone line so tribal members can call to register complaints and obtain information about ordinances, members' benefits and pending legislation.

Under the proposed ordinance, the 1-800-MOHEGAN line that Davison owns would provide that service but Davison said it could be another 800 number.

Davison is also upset because the tribe will not release the tribal rolls to tribal members. Without knowing where tribal members live, he said, it is difficult to petition for a referendum to amend the constitution or overrule the council's actions.

For example, to call a referendum on a constitutional amendment, a person must obtain more than 200 signatures of adult tribal members. There are 1,125 tribal members.

The Council of Elders denied Davison's request for the tribal rolls Sept. 6. Eichelberg, the elders chairman, said the tribal rolls contain information that he does not think should be released for fear the information would be misused.

"There's more than just the names and addresses," Eichelberg said. "There's a lot of information that is private."

Eichelberg noted that tribal elders do not have access to tthe tribal rolls either. If someone wanted to petition something, they could go to one of the tribe's monthly meetings and obtain names there.

As many as 150 tribal members have attended a monthly meeting, he said.

"If you really wanted to push something, all you have to do is start talking to people," said Eichelberg.

Davison also wants elected tribal officials to disclose how much the tribe is paying them. Fawcett said several members have raised that issue but there are others who do not think that information should be released.

"I really don't know what the policy is in other government," she said. "I know some people feel strongly about it one way or another."

Davison also wants the tribe to pay travel and lodging expenses for tribal members to come to the reversevation the second weekend of August for the annual homecoming.

Closing Meetings To Members Is A Rarity Among Indian Tribes
By Stan DeCoster
The Day newspaper
October 3, 1996

Terrell Boettcher, a reporter for the Sawyer County Record in rural Wisconsin, has attended council meetings and general membership gatherings of the local Indian tribe in much the same way as other reporters cover city and town council meetings.

"They're very open and accessible," he said. "I'd say they're as open as other governments in the area. It's a comparable situation."

Boettcher writes about the 5,500-member Lac Courte Oreilles tribe in northwest Wisconsin, which opened a small casino on its reservation four yars ago. Not only are the meetings open to public scrutiny, he said, but some tribal documents also are open.

Experts on Indian affairs say the degree of openness among the 550 tribes in the United States vaires from group to group because each is a sovereign entity.

Some tribes restrict access to meetings and records to their members. The Mashantucket Pequots, who own Foxwoods Resort Casino, permit tribal members but not the general public into council meetings.

Others, such as the Wisconsin tribe, open the door to the general public. It is rare for a tribe to bar members from tribal council meetings, as the Mohegan Indians do.

Eddie Brown, former assistant secretary for Indian affairs with the Interior Department, said that to his knowledge all tribes - with the possible exception of some Pueblos in the Southwest - permit their own members to attend council meetings.

He wasn't aware of the situation on the Mohegan reservation, where Kenneth Davison is complaining that he and other tribal members are being denied access to tribal council meetings and information.

"I see tribal governments as developing in a very positive way," said Brown. "Generally speaking, there is movement toward more openness and accountability."

Brown said he just returned from the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona, where tribal councilors are elected from various districts and sit for five days the first week of each month.

"Anybody can sit in on the meetings, whether they're tribal members or not," he said.

He added that the counci goes into executive or closed session much as a town council would do to discuss proprietary matters such as litigation, personnel or real estate.

Many of the larger Western tribes, including the Sioux, Cherokees and Navahos, operate in similar fashion, Brown said.

Robert Porter, a Seneca Indian from New York state and director of the Tribal Law and Government Center at the University of Kansas, said his tribe's government is open to its own membership.

"But it's fairly closed in terms of non-Senecas," he added.

Tribal nations were allowed to create their own forms of government as a result of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Brown said they started to assert themselves over the past 25 years.

There is greater emphasis on financial accountability, Brown said, as more and more tribes have opened casinos under the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. Factions within tribes are demanding that financial details be shared.

"Indian goverments are being challenged to be accountable for money and what's being done with it," Brown said. "They're finding pressure being placed on them to be responsible to the (Indian) community."

Tim Johnson, executive manager of Native Americas Magazine, published at Cornell University, said there is a growing sense that tribes operating casinos need to become more responsive in passing financial information along to tribal members.

"It's extremely important for communities to have accounting systems that are open in a way that (tribal members) know where the money is going," said Johnson, a Mohawk Indian.