Friday, March 18, 2016


Mistyne overlooking the rez from Divide

What IS a town?  Mistyne Hall is at UCal Berkeley, working on that question for an independent study course.  She wanted to get a better understanding of her early home town, partly because it is in such a state of crisis and confusion that it has been put into legal receivership.

Court appoints Robert Denning receiver 
for Town of Browning

Posted: Wednesday, March 16, 2016 6:00 am
By JOHN MCGILL Glacier Reporter Editor 

Last week, the Montana First Judicial District Court of Lewis and Clark County issued an order naming Robert K. Denning of Denning, Downey and Associates as receiver for the town of Browning.

According to the Order, “the Receiver shall take immediate possession, custody and control of all assets owned or held by the Town of Browning” and “immediately, and during the pendency of receivership, or until otherwise ordered by the Court, all of the authority of the Mayor and Town Council is temporarily suspended, and the Mayor and the Town Council shall have no authority to act on behalf of the Town.”

“Basically, Bob Denning becomes the town manager, city council and mayor,” said Glacier County Commissioner Michael DesRosier. While DesRosier said he’d not read the entire Order as of last week, he said he’d been assured by Denning that the county’s offices would remain operational and untouched. “Bob’s coming up to secure the office, and he said, ‘You’re going to have everything you’ve got. You’re not going to lose anything,’” DesRosier said.

While he couldn’t say for sure, DesRosier noted the county may be held responsible for part of the cost of the audit mandated by the Court Order.

The Order gives the receiver broad powers, including “the authority to gather, protect and oversee the Town’s assets, and the authority to hold, develop, rent, lease, sell, manage, maintain, operate, and otherwise use or permit the use of the assets under the terms and conditions the Receiver deems to be prudent and reasonable under the circumstances. The Receiver’s authority shall include entering upon and taking possession and control of the Town’s assets; take and maintain possession of the Town’s assets; manage the Town’s assets as an executive officer of the Town…take any and all actions deemed necessary by the Receiver in the Receiver’s sole discretion to the extent necessary to protect the Town’s bona fide assets; comply with the Orders of all Court’s exercising jurisdiction over the Town; determine that the business operations of the Town should be temporarily or permanently terminated; incur expenses that are normal and customary for the operations of the Town…and employ or contract with such consultants, managers, employees, agents, independent contractors, accountants, attorneys or other professionals as may deem appropriate in the Receiver’s discretion to effectuate the rights, duties or responsibilities of the Receiver pursuant to this Order.” And “To undertake, obtain or complete a comprehensive governmental audit of the Town’s assets and liabilities.”

The Order enjoins all people involved with the town to cooperate with the Receiver in discovering the town’s situation and requires him to submit a monthly report to the Court.

Speaking on Monday, March 14, Denning said he was at that moment meeting with his staff to arrive at a strategy to deal with the town’s many issues. He said a plan would be forthcoming this week, but he said the County’s operations at City Hall would continue unimpeded, as will Thunder Radio, KBWG-LP 107.5 FM. “Our intent is to address Browning’s issues and keep everything else.”

Vintage postcard of the Browning tipi

This move raises a lot of questions, one of which is explained in the article below from the PBS Newshour.

Which American municipalities 
have filed for bankruptcy?

Across the country, from Vallejo, Calif. to Detroit, Mich., some cities that cannot repay their debts have taken the extreme step of declaring municipal bankruptcy.

Cities file for bankruptcy under Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code. Yet before a city can declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the city must establish it is eligible to do so according to state law.

Chapter 9 bankruptcy is relatively rare. We’ve listed the cities and towns that have filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy since 2008 on the map below.

According to bankruptcy attorney Karol Denniston, when a city owes money to its employees, pensioners, and creditors, these debts constitute a contract — similar to a business taking out a loan. If the debts cannot be repaid, a municipality may consider bankruptcy as a last resort to negotiate reduced financial liabilities.

But unlike individuals and corporations, cities are not always allowed to declare bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy is a federal process. In turn, a state must give its cities, towns, counties, and other municipalities — governmental administrative districts like irrigation authorities or hospital districts — the right to petition the federal government to restructure their debts.
Without permission from the state, the federal government granting a bankruptcy petition for a municipality would violate a state’s authority and therefore, the 10th amendment.

Some states, like Arizona and Washington, expressly grant municipalities the right to file for bankruptcy.

Many other states establish conditions that must be met before a town can declare it is bankrupt. These conditions may involve an evaluation of the city’s finances or may require permission from a state governor.

Illinois, Colorado, and Oregon have particularly restrictive laws that only allow specific types of municipalities or even specific districts to file for Chapter 9. Georgia and Iowa prohibit cities from declaring bankruptcy, though Iowa has an exception to the law for municipalities that become bankrupt for reasons beyond their control.

A number of states haven’t written any specific law that determines whether or not a municipality can declare bankruptcy. Since cities in those states aren’t granted the right to file for Chapter 9, they cannot legally do so.

Browning during the NAID encampment along the west edge.

The first question has to be the hottest one:  is the Town of Browning under state law or federal law?  Is it continuous reservation or is it an “island of jurisdiction” belonging to the state?  If the Town of Browning is reservation, is it federal or a private tribal corporation?  We were at this point once a half-century ago when a tribal member refused to pay his debt at a large off-rez store on grounds that they could not use the state’s legal machinery to enforce private contracts because the debtor’s residence was on the reservation, not under the jurisdiction of the state.  He lived in Browning.  I can’t remember how it was settled, but the upshot was that no tribal member on the rez could get credit because there was no way non-payment could be prosecuted, so I guess the debtor prevailed, which was not exactly a win for the people.
Lewis and Clark County Courthouse

Who at the federal level gave the state permission to begin bankruptcy in this case?  How does the order come from Lewis and Clark County which is the county where Helena, the state capitol is located?  How does a private accounting firm get given the authority to begin receivership and what is its relationship to Glacier County, which is sometimes at odds with the tribe?  In fact, Denning, Downey and Associates is the business that has tried to sort out the Boggs' treasury mess in the county and is involved in the lawsuit against her. Isn't that a little, um, "incestuous" if not a conflict of interest?  The news stories make it sound as though it is Denning personally who is appointed to do this receivership.

At what point did “Browning” become a proper legal town anyway?  What are the conditions of being a legal town in Montana, let alone on a reservation?  Is there a specific process for towns ON “federal” land?  Surveyed boundaries; service infrastructures like water, sewer, and streets; law enforcement; a written code of ordinances?  (In the Sixties for some years the Browning ordinances were lost — I mean, the only copy was physically missing.  I don’t know whether a new set was composed or a copy was finally located.  It’s online now.)

Anthropologically, there are several “kinds” of towns at different stages of existence, responding to different forces, mostly economic.  In the beginning people lived in small units based on family.  If they were “hunter-gatherers”, which the Blackfeet were until the 19th century, they followed the herds of buffalo and the crops such as berries or camas.  This was not haphazard, but followed a predictable pattern.  In a way, they were a moveable town.  When they were forced by the disappearance of the buffalo and the military presence of US Cavalry, to stop moving, this changed many practices and relationships.

Fishing towns developed in situ where there was food year-round.  In pre-written history “sedentariness”— considered a move towards civilization — happened mostly when shifting to agriculture, the storage of grains in structures which meant that the people must stay close by to defend them.  They built enforcement structures like walls.  The ability to store and accumulate food meant that the population could grow and specialize.  

This idea was dominating the white mind into the twentieth century when they wanted to make hunter-gatherers into farmers.  But this was done in a colonial fashion with white overseers only pretending to consult people.  The overseers used ideas appropriate to conditions back east.  Later the reservation was transferred from the Department of War to the Interior Department, which was a slight improvement, but it still left the colonial pattern of whites from back east imposing their decisions on the indigenous people who lived here.  
Fertile and productive land

The Blackfeet were fortunate in that they could stay where they had been for centuries.  Not as sedentary towns, but circling through an area of operation bigger than today's reservation.  There was no Trail of Tears, but there were massacres.  The “Baker Massacre” happened in part because the people’s pattern in winter was to move to the river bottoms for shelter and wood.  Then they shifted, as bands, from one location to another along the river.  To the white mind, one location equalled one band so they attacked the location, getting the wrong band.

Towns developed without “permission”.  For instance, Robaire was a little town that gathered on the south banks of Birch Creek (the rez boundary, a natural line determined by the creek) because the residents had been thrown off the rez.  Bootleggers and whiskey traders ran a bar next to the little chapel and dwelling of the Catholic priest.  (The agent of the time was Methodist and the federal government had assigned the rez to the Methodists and other tribes to other denominations — all Protestant — who chose the agents for a few years until they turned out to be just as corrupt as everyone else, which is to say, “mixed.”)  This little pop-up town lasted a while and was exploited by entrepreneurs like Joe Kipp.  The big flood of '65 washed away the last traces.

Browning persists in part because of the crossing of highways 2 and 89 along the natural pathways determined by the Old North Trail down the east slope of the Rockies and the entrance to Marias Pass which is used by the railroad High-Line.  By now it has been the location of services and trade for a century, no doubt begun as soon as the agency began issuing commodities there.  Then came the federally authorized Indian traders, their homes, and the beginnings of infrastructure, like Green Grass Bull’s rickety wagon carrying barrels of water from Willow Creek for laundry.  This was all recent enough that my mother-in-law was one of the customers.

Green Grass Bull, taken by Thomas Magee


northern nick said...

. . . good stuff!! I think in the end it still comes down to who has the biggest stick and is willing to use it. That determines who is really in charge.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

To the guy with the stick, it never seems big enough. To the guy with no stick, he wonders how big a stick has got to be and how he can get one. Meanwhile other people figure out what you can make from a stick.