Friday, June 17, 2016


Harry Barnes, Chair, in the middle

This article was published in the Flathead Beacon on June 15, 2016.  It was written by Justin Franz

The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council has backed an effort to rewrite its tribal constitution in a move that would drastically alter its government.

On June 15, the tribal council voted to submit a new Blackfeet constitution to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for review. If the new document passes muster it will be presented to the entire tribe for a vote.

The new constitution would replace the tribe’s current form of government with three branches, including executive, legislative and judicial branches.

“It is a drastic change from what we have right now,” Chairman Harry Barnes said. “It would be an historic change.”

The effort to overhaul the Blackfeet constitution comes three years after the tribal government fell into shambles. In 2012, the tribal council split into two separate factions and tribal employees were unpaid for weeks at a time. The government shut down multiple times. One of the biggest criticisms of the current tribal government, as established by the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934, is that there is no separation of powers and the council has the ability to control everything, including what judges serve in tribal court.

A citizen group that met weekly for more than a year wrote the new 38-page constitution and bill of rights. The document calls for the creation of a three-pronged government to replace the nine-person tribal council. The executive branch would manage the tribe’s day-to-day operations and have a president and vice president that each serve three-year terms. In order to qualify to run for president or vice president, a tribal member would have to be 30 years of age or older, have been a resident of the reservation for at least five years and must have a high school degree or higher. There would be no term limits for the executive branch.

The legislative branch would have 13 representatives from around the reservation and meet twice a year to enact new laws. The reservation would be separated into districts, with six representatives from Browning, two from North Browning, two from Seville, one from Old Agency and two from Heart Butte.

Lastly, the new constitution would create an independent judicial branch with a tribal court and appellate court. An elected chief justice would oversee the judicial branch and appoint associate judges.

The new constitution was completed earlier this month and brought before the tribal council on June 15. The council supported sending it to the BIA for formal review in an eight-to-one vote.

The BIA will ensure the document does not violate federal law. Once it is reviewed by the agency, all tribal members will vote on the document. Barnes said a special election could be held this year.

If voters approve the new constitution, it would be implemented in 2018.

Barnes, a longtime supporter of constitutional reform, said the new constitution would be one of the biggest events in the reservation’s history. The Blackfeet first tried to rewrite its constitution in the 1940s and later in the 1970s and early 2000s, but those efforts failed.

“We want to give the people a chance to vote on these reforms,” he said. “(If they approve it) it would change the course of history for the Blackfeet Nation.”

I’m not Blackfeet, but I’ve been around this Blackfeet Rez since 1961.  In the Sixties I taught school and was with Bob Scriver, who at that time was a Justice of the Peace and City Magistrate.  His father came in 1903 and Bob himself was born in Browning in 1914.  

The Sixties were tumultuous, rather like now, but the town was considered an island under Montana State Law, while the reservation was federal.  Most businesses in town were white.  At the time the tribal government was modeled on corporations, considered the wave of the future.  The tribal council was like a Board of Directors with all tribal members as share-holders.

You may want to consult the post on this blog on 5-3-05  “NOTES FROM PAUL ROSIER’S “REBIRTH OF THE BLACKFEET NATION, 1912-1954”

Now I quote myself on this blog on 11-13-10.

“In 1934 the Indian Reorganization Act, which was part of the New Deal, created the present form of tribal government. Out of roughly a thousand Indian families, 747 were receiving federal welfare assistance and 138 were making it on their own. By 1935, with Warren O’Hara as superintendent, the Blackfeet Tribal Constitution had been prepared and the Tribal Charter was approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1936 the superintendent is C.L. Graves. An inventory shows that the tribal goods and equipment have been quietly looted -- the value of the missing things is estimated at $100,000. In 1939 an attempt to balance the Council’s cashbook couldn’t succeed because entries between January first and September first had not been recorded, nor had Nancy Goss, the treasurer, been making receipts. Hazlett was the chair, a controversial figure as always. Brian Connolly, Wright Hagerty and Levi Burd are on the council.

Paul Rosier’s “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912 - 1954” is a careful, detailed, evidence-based account of what was happening through this period. It may seem dry to those who don’t know the people involved, but for we who do recognize individuals -- might be related to them -- or for the individuals themselves who are still living, this book deserves careful reading and discussion. This is the time period when the idea of a reservation for a dying and essentially different people has to be replaced by the idea of people with a special heritage who are entitled citizens like everyone else. Denial dominates strategy. The larger world has never admitted this shift. They want ghost Indians, not real players.”

Now everything is quite different.  White people are mostly gone, partly because of Indian preference for federal jobs and partly because of demographics unfolding.  Many men who had come after WWII to start businesses had aged out and died without handing down their businesses.  Teachers were Native American.  Many small changes created a big one.  But a complex and emotional one.

The original political system of people on the prairies had evolved organically into clans or bands.  With a core of genetically-related and raised-together people, a penumbra formed from various sources: marriage, partnerships, affinities until the natural basic number was reached — maybe a hundred.  Governance formed as needed out of personal qualities and the needs of the moment.  War chiefs, old women of virtue, problem-solvers, the young and the restless.  They sat down together and talked things through — mostly.  This pattern still underlies everything else.

Today there are about 8,000 people on the rez and about the same in the diaspora through the world, including foreign countries.  The indigenous people of the planet are in conversation and sometimes in partnerships outside the federal context.  The BIA, who had been charged decades ago with making themselves obsolete, continue to have enormous power without the intent or ability to respond locally.

It interests me a great deal that Justin Franz across the Rockies is the reporter most interested and eloquent about rez matters, while the local east side publisher (who owns the weekly papers in four towns) seems only interested in scandal and discontent.  Maybe a little bit of tourist color.

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