Two times a $5000 per capita petition has come before the current Oneida Business Committee (OBC) and two times the OBC members have denied it by not scheduling a General Tribal Council (GTC) meeting to discuss it.
“We were elected to have to make the hard decisions,” said OBC Councilwoman Jennifer Webster. “Not everybody’s going to like it, not everybody may vote for us again, but when we took that oath of office we agreed to have to make those decisions that not everybody’s going to like.”
The proposed payment would have cost $86 million, and caused layoffs of approximately 1500 employees, and eliminated more than 50 tribal programs according to a financial impact statement from the Oneida Chief Financial Officer Larry Barton. With that information in mind, the OBC members agonized on whether to bring the petition to a GTC meeting not knowing what the outcome would be.
“That was one of the toughest decisions that we had to make, and I know I couldn’t sleep at night, it weighed heavily on us, and we talked about it for hours, but I think people elected us to have to make those decisions,” said Webster.
Chief Council Jo Anne House cites the Oneida Constitution and Oath of Office as the source of the OBC’s responsibility to protect the assets of the nation.
“The Business Committee … as created under the constitution has some unique responsibilities. It’s not always within the words of the constitution, it’s in the actions of … the nation through time,” said House. “This Business Committee has taken a good hard look at the responsibilities that they have been elected to carry out on behalf of all the members, and they realize the dangers in the actions that they’re taking. They realize the trouble that they’re picking up voluntarily to carry out these actions, but they also turn around and say ‘I took an oath of office, our constitution, our position descriptions, the actions and the comments of the members of the General Tribal Council demand that I stand up and do the right thing.’”
The Oneida Constitution was initially adopted in 1936, and the form of government was much different than today.
“If you look back at 1936 when they created the Executive Committee, everybody just came together, elected our officers, we met, but they had a hard time getting 50 people there, so they created this Executive Committee and gave them authority. That worked for a while until they needed something better. They were growing … so they created the Business Committee in the early 60’s when they amended the constitution,” explained House. “The Business Committee was given a lot of authority and responsibility to act on behalf of the nation.”
While not all the duties and responsibilities are spelled out in the Oneida Constitution, Oneida laws and past decisions support the authority of the current OBC.
“They adopted the constitution knowing that it would carry us into the future whatever that may be,” said House.
“In 1936 we had … an ordinance that required people to ask permission to chop down a tree, and they paid .5-.10 cents for that ability to do so,” said House. “The 10-day notice policy is a prime example of the Business Committee recognizing that how we’ve done and put together General Tribal Council meetings in the past when we were worried about cutting down a tree for wood cutting to how we’re going to do it now … is a world of difference away.”
Members of the OBC are elected by Oneida citizens 18 years and older in tri-annual elections. As part of the process, candidates campaign and voters choose who to vote for based on their platforms.
“If that’s how they’re expected to act, and expected to carry out those responsibilities, why would it be that we would expect them to ignore all that when it came to a matter that had such a deep impact on the nation?” said House. “They have a fiduciary responsibility to every member, not just the petitioner.”
Rather than seeing GTC petitions asking for benefits for individuals, both House and Webster would like to see GTC petitions with a longer view.
“We were brought up to not only think of you and your family but think of the community as a whole,” said Webster. “We know what’s right, and what’s wrong and we know that if a $5000 per cap was to go through, that it’s going to hurt our tribe, and I don’t want that for my family and I don’t want that for your family.”
“I have to plan 10, 15, 20, 30 … hundreds of years in the future because that’s our timeframe. This nation isn’t my lifetime, it isn’t your lifetime, it’s not anybody’s, it goes beyond that. To the extent that I have to plan for 100 years down the road, I have to provide direction and guidance to set a good foundation on how people are acting today a hundred years from now the same way we’re acting today based on what our ancestors told us back here,” said House.
Webster was worried about community reaction to the OBC decision.
“I was a bit nervous, you know, somebody coming up to me, are they going to holler at me? But it was more of appreciation of us stepping up to the plate and having to make that decision,” said Webster. “It was refreshing, the phone calls, the e-mails, people I would see at Wal-Mart, people that I didn’t even know ‘thank you for doing the right thing.’”