Story by Peter Friesen, photos by Courtney Gerard
It’s a Tuesday night in Browning, Montana, the most populated town on the Blackfeet Nation.
The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council chambers sits, half-lit, as tribal members gather underneath the bison, deer and elk heads hanging on the walls, with photos of former tribal council members overlooking the room.
There are 22 people gathered in the council chambers, a mostly older, but diverse group who are, by day, maintenance workers, professors, lawyers, council members, tour guides and secretaries. But by evening, at least on Tuesdays, their work here could have far-reaching implications for the future of their tribe.
Following a prayer and a quick meal of rice, pork and banana cream pie, along with generous amounts of coffee, council member Joe McKay stands up to begin the meeting, interrupting small talk about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The room grows quiet as Scott Carlson, a Blackfeet appellate court judge, presents the specifics of judiciaries in England, the U.S. and other tribal governments in a dense PowerPoint presentation.
Eventually, members of this group will have to choose which, if any, of the judicial systems the Blackfeet Nation should adopt as one of its government branches. But not tonight.
“I’m not here to pitch a system to you,” Carlson said. “I’m here to explain how some of these systems work.”
Carlson pointed out the corruption in the tribe’s current court system.
Since there are no checks and balances, there’s no accountability for the court to answer to what the council or the public want them to do, although the current constitution gives the council oversight of the court, including its appointments.
“How do you build that accountability in though?” asked Mary Johnson, a community member.
“That’s the point of this whole exercise,” McKay replied about the effort that would make this nine-seat council extinct and cost him his job.
One old man in the very back appeared to be asleep for the last hour of the 90-minute session.
McKay called this meeting a “food for thought night.” The next week would be more discussion-based. Tribal members could debate, outline and vote on a judicial system for the third of their three-branch constitution.
This group has met every week since February of this year to rewrite the Blackfeet Nation’s constitution. It’s a reform long-needed and twice-tried, and there’s a cautious optimism this time around. A majority of the council has promised to let the people vote on the new document. Neither of the previous constitution reform efforts made it that far.
The Blackfeet Nation is rebounding from a low point in its political history, an era when administration lost its power and government lost its meaning.
In 2012, the tribal council split over issues regarding elections, enrollment and embezzlement, among other problems. This division led to an almost two-year period with two revisions of the tribal council trying to run the tribe at the same time.
“Change is really, really hard to do and we have to convince people to change,” McKay said.
The tribe’s current constitution was adopted in 1935, as part of the Indian Reorganization Act. A boilerplate document, the constitution was written as generally as possible, so it could apply to the over 100 tribes that adopted the document, said Ian Record, director of the Partnership for Tribal Governance of the National Congress of American Indians.
He’s seen a groundswell of reform movements in recent years, even from tribes without Reorganization Act constitutions, led by disillusioned tribal members.
“Ultimately it’s about the nation and the citizens talking about, ‘Where do we want to go as a nation?’” Record said.
Although many tribes have passed one or more amendments to their general constitutions, very few have been able to institute a new document. There’s no comprehensive data on how many IRA tribes have passed new constitutions, numbers Record said he’s wanted to gather for a while now.
Despite a lack of successful reform, Record doesn’t think the ideology and education that comes with progressive movements goes to waste; rather it informs the next group willing to try.
“There’s no such thing as a failed constitution reform movement,” he said.
The original boilerplate constitution was drafted with the intent to reflect traditional tribal governments, however, the one-branch council system actually overlooked them. The Iroquois Confederacy used a checks-and-balances system that influenced Thomas Jefferson, leaving the Blackfeet only one of many tribes struggling under a system that is easily corruptible and almost impossible to change.
“One of the biggest obstacles to changing tribal governments are the tribal councils themselves,” McKay said.
In smaller, rural areas like the Blackfeet reservation, which sits in the northwestern corner of Montana, government workers and council members are family and friends as well as coworkers. Most grew up together. McKay said he can reprimand someone, but if they go down the hall and find someone to back them up, the consequences are neutralized, creating rifts within a council that isn’t effective if it’s not unified.
McKay said tribal members knew the Indian Reorganization Act constitution stunk from its adoption in 1935, but as time went on it became harder and harder to reform the system, as people grew used to the corruption
“The government, the constitution, is really a bad habit that we’ve become addicted to,” he said. “It will be a culture shock to people, because they’ve become so ingrained.”
And now is the time to act, McKay said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the federal government are the least involved in tribal affairs they’ve ever been.
In fact, the U.S. government’s overall hands-off policy has resulted in more federal support of tribal reform efforts. The BIA gave the Blackfeet a $65,000 grant to pay for an educational informational tour, a January symposium and any legal or drafting fees that arise.
The BIA is so removed it’s encouraged the Blackfeet reform group to pass an amendment eliminating the provision that requires federal approval of a new constitution, which would also require approval in an election overseen by the Secretary of the Interior.
The constitution committee hopes to assuage fear and suspicion by conducting meetings with complete transparency. McKay is quick to note that this is more than a mere political promise.
McKay is right in assuming much of the Blackfeet population will approach a new constitution with cynicism. One of the most controversial issues in the original document led to the government shutdown of Blackfeet the last time a group attempted reform.
Transparency is essential for letting the tribe know that the committee is not going to address blood quantum, an issue that still dominates small talk about the constitution around town.
The committee decided not to deal with the blood degree law until after the tribe approves a constitution, one of the only concessions made in this effort. But they’ll be in a better position to reform that controversial law with a more stable government.
Every week on the opinion page of Browning’s weekly newspaper, the Glacier Reporter, McKay publishes each section of the constitution they draft in that week’s reform meeting. Everything is also uploaded to the Blackfeet Constitution Forum Facebook page.
“We’re doing this in a way that … shows we’re not hiding anything,” McKay said.
Those against the effort mostly make their opinion known on Facebook and the opinion section of the Reporter, although earlier this spring, several tribal members showed up to protest a meeting, one of the only public outcries against
In every 2016 issue of the Reporter sans the first three, a write-in comment, news article or survey ran about the new constitution, on the page next to local bowling league scores and opinion surveys taken on the website (“Do you think the current heat wave will end soon?” was a close one from last summer—54 percent said “no.”).
Verena Rattler wrote in several times, informing those who didn’t attend the meetings what happened, but with a skeptical eye. She didn’t agree with many of the final decisions.
In a Jan. 13 survey, 74 percent of respondents agreed that the current government needs changing, but on Jan. 20, 53 percent were “pessimistic” that the current effort would work, while just 33 percent remained optimistic.
“It’ll eventually happen, ‘cause we need a new constitution,” Woody Kipp, a political radical and professor at Blackfeet Community College said.
Kipp was at Wounded Knee in the early ‘70s being shot at by FBI agents and took over Alcatraz Island with the American Indian Movement, a left-wing group of young Native Americans who were struggling to return to their culture in the civil rights era.
The incident at Wounded Knee left Kipp disenchanted with the movement. He moved to Heart Butte, Montana, on the Blackfeet reservation.
He went to school, taught journalism at the University of Montana and was hired at Blackfeet Community College in 2003, teaching drama, writing and Native American literature.
Kipp still works outside the system, distrustful of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and Blackfeet Chief Earl Old Person, especially after taking part in the 2008 reform movement.
Kipp said he attended every meeting during that reform attempt, working from the end of class sometimes until midnight for two months drafting a constitution.
The tribal council didn’t let the people vote on the document, wiping away the whole effort with callous quickness. Kipp felt betrayed by the council, and when the most recent effort began in 2014, he wasn’t interested in trying again.
“I was very dispirited after last time,” he said.
Besides feeling undermined and undervalued, Kipp isn’t sure there needs to be a whole new constitution. He’s backed off the full-on reform that he was committed to in 2008.
“All we have to do is tweak it. You don’t have to write a whole new document,” he said.
Among the group who believe a whole new document is necessary is Darrell Norman, who’s been trying to get the Blackfeet a new constitution for over 45 years.
He even tried to convince his friend to attend a drafting meeting. The friend was skeptical, but Norman was persistent.
“We’ve had the ability to study past attempts,” Norman said. “We have a more dedicated group, a more informed group.”
Norman knows those past attempts well. The first, dubbed “Charlie Conley’s Constitution,” after the Blackfeet member who spearheaded the attempt, was in 1972.
Only five years after helping to found the National Association of Blackfeet Indians in Seattle in 1966, Norman was taking three days a month off work to travel to Browning to attend drafting meetings.
He was just over 30 and already intricately involved in modern Blackfeet history. The association was the first group organized to serve off-reservation Blackfeet Indians and kept the culture strong in the Seattle area.
Keeping the culture relevant was only one part of the Blackfeet Association’s work. They were involved in tribal politics as well, bussing Seattle Blackfeet to the reservation every summer to vote in council elections.
The Facebook group keeps those off-reservation members involved and up-to-date. Iva Croff, a graduate student at the University of Montana in American Indian Law and history, used to work at the tribal elections administrator’s office in Browning. She’s living off the reservation for the first time in her life.
Croff is excited by the idea of a new constitution every time it’s brought up.
“It’ll be ours,” she said with a smile.
After McKay served in the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council in the mid-1980s and again in the early 1990s, he was elected in 2014 after running a campaign for change. He represented tribal citizens and issues in many court cases as an attorney in between his council stints.
This intimate knowledge of the Blackfeet tribe’s inner workings prepared McKay for his current work. After spending an estimated 90 percent of every day in his council office as a social worker, he works as the drafter of this new tribal constitution.
With a receding hairline and a long ponytail, McKay’s lined, thoughtful face speaks to a never-ending uphill battle.
“If we took the governing documents of most tribes and compared them to how the government actually works, the two wouldn’t be same,” he said.
The old constitution states most ordinances, policies and laws enacted by the council are supposed to be reviewed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Now, unless the laws address trust lands, the Bureau doesn’t bother.
McKay said having tribal business so intertwined with the government — the governing body is called the “business council” — has only caused economic failure, as politics get in the way of capitalist advancement.
“Only when we take tribal government out of tribal business will we give our tribal business the chance to grow,” he said.
In 2016, the tribal government was helpless in the face of Browning’s bankruptcy, McKay said. Since Browning is under Glacier County, not the Blackfeet reservation, the council had no oversight over the mismanagement of the city’s funds, leaving the tribe a powerless bystander while the city’s basic amenities were shut down and citizens refused to pay their bills.
No matter the outcome, this attempt at constitutional reform is purely a people-driven effort, even if that group of people is scant in numbers.
“Who is the group? It’s anyone who shows up on Tuesday nights,” McKay said.
A core group of around 15, who first met in October 2014, are the most consistent and dedicated reformers, but McKay said up to 30 show up at the weekly meetings. The Blackfeet Constitution Forum page has over 500 members.
Harold Wippert was there on a Tuesday night this spring. He works as a maintenance man at the Blackfeet Care Center and was involved in the 2008 reform attempt. McKay roped him back in for the current reform discussions.
Wippert said he hasn’t learned much new about government systems—that’s mostly review from last time—but he is much more aware this time of other members’ cautious attitudes about reform.
He said he didn’t want to be what he saw as “a lot of gung-ho ones who really want to change, but when it comes down to it, they haven’t stayed involved.”
Ed DesRosier, who owns and operates Sun Tours, wanted to represent small-business owners. He started attending only two weeks ago, but after following McKay’s and others’ columns in the local newspaper, he was encouraged by the initiative and effort to improve the government.
McKay said the group represents the tribe pretty well in terms of demographics, except those under 30.
“That’s because they expect us to do it for them,” he said.
McKay said older tribal members are more involved because they’ve lived under the Indian Reorganization Act constitution so much longer and are more aware of its shortcomings.
Of those that attend the meetings, most believe they’re doing the right thing for the next generation; an elder-led reform that lives to see its children and their children be members of a functioning, accountable government.
Martin Norunner is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet tribe living in Great Falls. He grew up on the reservation and owns his own business in Missoula. Right now, he is a full-time father, while his wife works as an attorney.
“This is something that’s going to be affecting future generations of the tribe,” he said. Norunner has three children all under the age of five.
With little education in law or government, Norunner asks his wife and other members of the reform group for explanations if he’s confused or doesn’t understand a particular issue before going to the next meeting to debate it.
At one meeting, after some debate that seemed unsolvable, the group was ready to just go home. McKay said that was fine, but they weren’t moving on to the next section until they’d come up with a draft. No problem would be left unsolved.
McKay remembered when George HeavyRunner stood up to address the group.
“What I see are a bunch of leaders who stood up to challenge and to take on this burden for the community,” HeavyRunner said. “Whoever’s out there that opposes this, they don’t have a proposal on the table. We have a proposal on the table.”
The group has a rough timeline in place for the document; they’d like to submit a draft to the BIA by June, before tribal council elections later that month. McKay thinks they can meet the deadline.
After the document is submitted, the hope is that the council will finally let the Blackfeet tribe vote on a new constitution, one that promises to change only for the better.
“When it’s all done … most of us are going to go home and go back to our lives and leave it to another generation to lead under a new system that maybe gives them a better chance than we have today,” McKay said.