SPLIT DECISIONS: Divided by politics, Blackfeet seek government reform

Story by Bjorn Berge­son
Pho­tos by Elliot Natz


ANNE POLLOCK read the let­ter in silence. Some­one had pho­tographed and uploaded it to Face­book within the hour, like an Inter­net meme, but the head­ing at the top and the sig­na­tures at the end marked it as an offi­cial doc­u­ment. As she neared the end, she shook her head from side to side and her eyes welled up with tears of frustration.

The let­ter was writ­ten and signed by one fac­tion of the Black­feet Tribal Busi­ness Coun­cil and addressed to the other fac­tion. It informed all the tribal employ­ees their pay­checks would not be issued on time the next day, or the day after that. Fur­ther­more, it asked the employ­ees to walk off of their jobs in protest against the other coun­cil, but Pol­lock knew that any­one who did that would be fired.

Pol­lock is employed by the Indian Health Ser­vices. The pro­gram, like many oth­ers in the Black­feet Nation, is fed­er­ally funded. As a result, the coun­cil has to approve her pay­checks as well as more than 800 other employ­ees.
The coun­cil schism makes life con­fus­ing and frus­trat­ing, Pol­lock said, espe­cially when employ­ees can be fired on the whims of the coun­cil members.

And that’s scary,” she said. “It’s scary because I’ve got bills to pay. I’ve got food to put on the table. It’s just not the eas­i­est thing. Espe­cially around here.”

In Octo­ber 2013, the Black­feet Tribal Busi­ness Coun­cil split into two sep­a­rate fac­tions: one fac­tion run by Chair­man Willie A. Sharp Jr., who was elected in 2010, and the other led by Coun­cil Sec­re­tary Roger “Sassy” Run­ning Crane. Both fac­tions blame the other for the split, and both sides have cre­ated a sit­u­a­tion that leaves employ­ees like Pol­lock and their pay­checks caught in the middle.Three of the seven Willie A. Sharp Jr. faction members, Cheryl Little Dog, left, Leon Vielle and Sharp, send out a live telecast to the Blackfeet Nation from tribal headquarters. The telecast was in response to tribal paychecks being late again. During the telecast, Vielle called the Log Cabin Council “extortionists” and “terrorists,” saying their corruption would not be tolerated and they would not bend to the Log Cabin Council’s demands regarding paychecks. Shortly after, Sharp, Vielle and Little Dog talked with the Log Cabin Council and agreed to pay tribal employees.

The polit­i­cal tur­moil grip­ping the Black­feet Nation isn’t new or unique to Indian Coun­try. Many tribes have faced dys­func­tional gov­ern­ments. For the Black­feet, the issues divid­ing the coun­cil are multi-faceted. The prob­lems stem from a boil­er­plate con­sti­tu­tion that was adopted by the tribe in 1935. The con­sti­tu­tion has no sep­a­ra­tion of powers.

Issues regard­ing tribal enroll­ment and blood quan­tum play a large role, as do oft-cited prob­lems like nepo­tism, embez­zle­ment and elec­tion fraud. A new tribal elec­tion is sched­uled for June 6, 2014. But as the divide in the coun­cil has grown, frac­tures have started to appear in the bedrock of the com­mu­nity. Many peo­ple are push­ing for change, but the strug­gle is in how to go about it.

Well, what’s going to hap­pen tomor­row?” Pol­lock asked. “Are we going to go to work? Are our pay­checks going to be there? Or are we not going to get them until Fri­day? Or are we not going to get them for a cou­ple of weeks?”

Still, Pol­lock said she is one of the lucky ones. Anna Bull Shoe, Pollock’s part­ner, brings in enough money through her own busi­ness, mak­ing and sell­ing break­fasts at the schools and the hos­pi­tal in Brown­ing, that even when Pollock’s checks come late, they have been able to make it through. But many tribal employ­ees are try­ing to sup­port fam­i­lies on one pay­check. And when the money isn’t there on pay­day, the sit­u­a­tion can turn dire.

Bull Shoe is one of many peo­ple try­ing to improve the sit­u­a­tion. She has been col­lect­ing doc­u­ments and sig­na­tures for a recall peti­tion that if accepted, would have the entire busi­ness coun­cil replaced before the upcom­ing election.

Time is run­ning out, though. The Sharp fac­tion has appointed an elec­tion board, a move the Bureau of Indian Affairs has declared ille­gal, while the Run­ning Crane fac­tion is seek­ing to reap­point the 2012 elec­tion board, which the BIA said would also be ille­gal. Regard­less, both sides are press­ing ahead with elec­tion plans. Despite its skep­ti­cism of both fac­tions, the BIA has been reluc­tant to inter­vene, call­ing the mat­ter an inter­nal affair.

“It’s scary because I’ve got bills to pay. I’ve got food to put on the table. It’s just not the eas­i­est thing. Espe­cially around here.”

Either way, the Black­feet Con­sti­tu­tion states the busi­ness coun­cil must rat­ify any recall peti­tion. Given the frac­tured gov­ern­ing body, that seems unlikely. Bull Shoe intends to file her peti­tion directly with the BIA. The move goes against the con­sti­tu­tion, but Bull Shoe said she sees no other solution.

Which coun­cil would I take it to?” she asked. “The ones at the build­ing, or the ones at the cafe? There is no coun­cil right now.”

She also plans to send copies of the peti­tion to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and Helena, as well as the regional BIA offices in Billings. Last, to make sure the peti­tion doesn’t dis­ap­pear, Bull Shoe intends to store a copy with a third party.

That way they can’t just push it out of sight,” she said.

Anna Bull Shoe sits at her kitchen table in Browning, reading from a thick document naming enrolled members of the Blackfeet tribe. Bull Shoe uses the document to verify signatures on her petition to remove the entire Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. To sign the petition, a tribal member must be 18 and eligible to vote.Bull Shoe said she’s col­lected more than the 2,500 sig­na­tures needed for the peti­tion to suc­ceed. But even if it were accepted, there’s many ques­tions left unan­swered. Would an interim coun­cil be able to suc­ceed after years of con­flict and cor­rup­tion? Will the BIA take a proac­tive stance to man­age the tribe while a per­ma­nent coun­cil is found? Would the next coun­cil do what no coun­cil has done yet and usher in impor­tant reforms that break the council’s grip on the reser­va­tion? The peti­tion doesn’t answer these ques­tions. But for Bull Shoe and the peo­ple who have signed the peti­tion, it’s a glim­mer of hope for the future.

Many rumors sur­round the peti­tion. Some peo­ple think there is an agenda behind it or that it’s a trick of one faction’s design. Bull Shoe talks of peo­ple who’ve said they would be fired if their sig­na­tures were found on the peti­tion. Peo­ple are afraid. Pol­lock said her super­vi­sor has asked about her role in the peti­tion. She fears she could be fired over it. But they both say there isn’t much choice.

We have to do this,” Bull Shoe said. “We are going to get this done no mat­ter what.”

Bull Shoe and Pol­lock have been dri­ving across the reser­va­tion col­lect­ing sig­na­tures. Pol­i­tics aren’t their only obsta­cle. Some of the peo­ple Bull Shoe trusted with sig­na­ture sheets have stopped return­ing her calls, and oth­ers have over­es­ti­mated the num­ber of sig­na­tures they’ve collected.

SHAWNEE ROSE Skunkcap Momberg gets off of work at Head Start Early Child, and dri­ves across Brown­ing to visit her mom for a cup of cof­fee. Her mother, Robin Bear Child, lives in one of the newer houses on the gov­ern­ment estates near the hospital.

Momberg works full time at Head Start, another pro­gram man­aged through the tribe. The pro­gram pro­vides care and edu­ca­tion for 200 chil­dren on the reser­va­tion. Like Pol­lock, Momberg’s pay­checks are han­dled through the tribe.

Our last nor­mal pay­check was in mid-November, and then we didn’t get paid again until right before Christ­mas,” Momberg said. “It’s really stress­ful because I’ve got three kids and car pay­ments and rent. To have to kind of lean on my mommy, that was really stressful.”

To com­pound the prob­lem, Momberg said it’s hard not know­ing how to bud­get out a check that won’t come on time.

It’s hard to hang on to it, because it’s like I don’t want to spend this all right here and right now, I need to stretch it out till I get the next hope­ful pay­day,” Momberg said.

In Jan­u­ary, the tribe failed to pay its low-income account with Glac­ier Elec­tric Coop­er­a­tive. As a result, some fam­i­lies went with­out power for two weeks before the tribe was able to set­tle the balance.

Blackfeet Tribal Business Council candidate, Nathan De Roche, left, talks about tribal reform during a Blackfeet Against Corruption meeting. BAC is an activist group that  supports the Sharp Faction.In Feb­ru­ary, the two coun­cil fac­tions reached an agree­ment to keep the employ­ees paid. The agree­ment was less than ideal for every­one. Employ­ees fired by one side of the busi­ness coun­cil would con­tinue to col­lect pay­checks. Mean­while, back pay for three coun­cil mem­bers who had been sus­pended for a year prior to the split would still be frozen.

Many have asked Momberg and other employ­ees why they would still come to work when their pay­checks don’t come in.

Peo­ple were like, ‘Well, why are you even going to work? Every­body needs to … walk out,’” Momberg said. “But if we don’t go to work, there’s 400 kids that we don’t know if they’re get­ting to eat or if they’re going to have heat.”

She is skep­ti­cal of whether the Black­feet polit­i­cal process can work: If a new coun­cil came in, there is lit­tle guar­an­tee the same sit­u­a­tion wouldn’t develop again. With no sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers built into the polit­i­cal sys­tem, the Tribal Busi­ness Coun­cil has absolute con­trol over the judi­cial sys­tem, the law enforce­ment, and hir­ing and fir­ing prac­tices. And as with Anna Bull Shoe’s peti­tion, changes need to be approved by the tribal busi­ness coun­cil, which leave the peo­ple with no recourse when they step out of line.

If you don’t have a sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, then you don’t have a fair gov­ern­ment,” said Joe McKay, an attor­ney in Brown­ing. “There’s no sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, so they’re right if they say they are.”

McKay filed an injunc­tion in tribal court against the Black­feet Tribal Busi­ness Coun­cil on April 30. The goal of the injunc­tion was to halt the elec­tion process until a BIA-approved elec­tion board could be appointed. The tribal court struck it down, leav­ing McKay with­out legal options.

My point today was to force them to have a legal elec­tion so we can move for­ward,” McKay said over the phone.

For many on the reser­va­tion, the only way to move past the polit­i­cal mess cre­ated over the past year is to hold a new elec­tion. With five vacant seats, it could break the polit­i­cal deadlock.

Bryon Farmer,  (center) shakes hands with Councilman Paul McEvers. McEvers was previously suspended from the tribal council then brought back on after the council  brought back after the schism in October. Farmer is one of the leaders of Blackfeet Against Corruption, an activist group that supports the Sharp Faction.But there are com­pli­ca­tions. The Sharp fac­tion, with­out a full quo­rum of elected coun­cil del­e­gates, appointed the new elec­tion board, and the BIA have declared it ille­gal. Nev­er­the­less, Sharp’s elec­tion board alleges the Run­ning Crane fac­tion has been try­ing to intim­i­date its mem­bers, a move the Run­ning Crane side says is unfounded. The elec­tion board labeled Run­ning Crane and his coun­cilors as “oppo­si­tion” and has refused to allow them to reg­is­ter for re-election. This prompted the BIA to issue another let­ter voic­ing con­cerns that the elec­tion may be biased.

The BIA has stated in sev­eral recent let­ters to Chair­man Sharp that unless a new elec­tion board is appointed by quo­rum, the BIA will not rec­og­nize any newly elected coun­cilors. In that case, only four mem­bers of the coun­cil will be BIA approved. There would be no legal quo­rum of six, and the tribe could endan­ger its government-to-government rela­tion­ship with the U.S.

McKay said the con­se­quences of this would be far-reaching. If this elec­tion isn’t valid, then there would not be enough legally rec­og­nized coun­cilors to have another elec­tion two years from now. The tribe would lose lucra­tive con­tracts. The BIA would be oblig­ated to con­tinue fund­ing grants and pro­grams, and tribal jobs would become BIA jobs.

This could cre­ate a never-ending cycle of con­sti­tu­tional prob­lems,” McKay said.

Despite mis­giv­ings about the elec­tion board, McKay is run­ning for a coun­cil seat. He hopes to be able to enact con­sti­tu­tional reform that will give the Black­feet Con­sti­tu­tion sep­a­ra­tion of powers.

He doubts Bull Shoe’s peti­tion would be effec­tive because it would never make it past either ver­sion of the council.

No one is going to say, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a bunch of names here. Lets put our­selves up for re-election,’” McKay said.

The prob­lems with the Black­feet Con­sti­tu­tion are not unique. In 1935, the BIA imposed con­sti­tu­tions upon many tribes. Tribes have been allowed to amend and reform their con­sti­tu­tions, but the Black­feet haven’t changed the doc­u­ment much over the years. The last push for reform was in 2010, and the coun­cil rejected it.

Dr. Ian Record, a man­ag­ing direc­tor at the Native Nations Insti­tute for Lead­er­ship, Man­age­ment, and Pol­icy with the Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona has been study­ing gov­ern­men­tal con­flicts in Indian Coun­try for over a decade. The cur­rent Black­feet tur­moil isn’t a unique sit­u­a­tion, Record said.

Roger Running Crane, center, talks with fired appellate Judge Julene Kennerly, right, and Shawn Augare shortly after a deal was struck between the Log Cabin Council and the Sharp Faction to pay tribal employees.Often it is a sys­tem or a con­sti­tu­tion that was imposed on the tribe, by an exter­nal actor, usu­ally the fed­eral gov­ern­ment,” Record said. “While it’s dif­fi­cult, I think it would behoove the Black­feet, and other nations who find them­selves in these sit­u­a­tions, to take a step back and think, ‘Is this really a lead­er­ship prob­lem? Or is this an institution’s problem?’”

The prob­lem with the Black­feet sit­u­a­tion is the cur­rent sys­tem makes it hard for reforms to be imple­mented. Nev­er­the­less, Record said the BIA shouldn’t inter­vene in the turmoil.

The rea­son that the Black­feet, and so many other nations, find them­selves in these gov­ern­men­tal predica­ments is pre­cisely because the feds did get involved,” Record said. “Because they said, ‘We know how you should gov­ern your­selves, and this is the con­sti­tu­tion you should use, and this is the way you should make deci­sions.’ And now Native nations are strug­gling with the legacy of that.”

Con­sti­tu­tional reform is the hope of many on the reser­va­tion. But with a ques­tion­able elec­tion in the future and polit­i­cal grid­lock at the present, reform is a long way off, and the wait­ing isn’t easy for the peo­ple caught in the middle.

ANNA BULL SHOE hoped to get more sig­na­tures for the peti­tion from a friend in Heart Butte, 30 miles south of Brown­ing, but when she arrived, he wasn’t around. For Bull Shoe, this is a com­mon thing. Peo­ple say they’ve filled out the pages of sig­na­tures, but when she comes to col­lect, they aren’t around or they’ll say the pages are missing.

She doesn’t let it spoil her day though. She decided to drive out to look at the home she and Pol­lock intend to move into over the sum­mer. It’s down a rough dirt road, nearly halfway between Heart Butte and Brown­ing. She dri­ves her Cadil­lac gin­gerly through the deep clay, com­ing to rest on top of a hill a quar­ter mile from the home.

We’ll have to walk from here,” Anna said.

Walk­ing past a decrepit build­ing on the way, Anna begins to tell the his­tory of the land. It belongs to a farmer who lives nearby, on the oppo­site side of the high­way, she said. The house they’re mov­ing into is actu­ally an old school build­ing. While Anna talks, Pol­lock picks wild sage.

The large build­ing is a bit of a fixer-upper. Parts of the roof have bro­ken with age. Win­dows have had bricks thrown through them, prob­a­bly by drunken teens. Birds moved into the attic, and, as a result, large sec­tions of the floor below are cov­ered in their waste.Anna Bull Shoe,  left, Kila Bird and Anne Pollock visit the house they aim to move into by summer. In the coming months, Bull Shoe plans to renovate the house to make it livable for her family of eight.

While they’ve been liv­ing in Brown­ing, Pol­lock and Bull Shoe have used the school build­ing as a stor­age space. One room that used to serve as a gym­na­sium and for church ser­mons is now crowded with bags of belongings.

See, here’s where they used to wor­ship,” Bull Shoe said, lift­ing a large black bag off the floor to reveal a paint­ing of a cross and two hands joined in prayer.

Get­ting the build­ing to a live­able state will take hard work and ded­i­ca­tion. Friends and fam­ily have offered to help out when they can, but it will take effort, time and unity from many peo­ple to get the job done.

Like the build­ing, Bull Shoe and Pol­lock think the tribal gov­ern­ment is in need of repair, even though it’s a mas­sive under­tak­ing for the peo­ple of the land.

Look­ing out the win­dow across the still-dead-from-winter hills and trees, Bull Shoe remains hope­ful the peti­tion will work. The elec­tion, she said, won’t go far enough to fix the prob­lems of the people.

They’re not good lead­ers,” she said. “We need to get them all out. Then we could start again.”

The great­est hope for Bull Shoe and Pol­lock is that the next coun­cil will reform the con­sti­tu­tion and cre­ate a gov­ern­ment that pro­tects and lis­tens to the people.

We need sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers,” Pol­lock said. “So that way the chair­man and the coun­cil don’t have so much power.”

But even if Bull Shoe doesn’t get the peti­tion in, or if it fails to get past BIA scrutiny, she said she is still proud they have tried to fix the problems.

Even if they kick it back, even if we don’t get past the 2,500, that’s still more peo­ple than what they had vote in the last elec­tion,” Bull Shoe said.

As the Sharp fac­tion pushes for­ward with their elec­tion board, the Run­ning Crane fac­tion has once again sus­pended pay­checks for tribal employ­ees. As this story goes to print, pay­checks have been with­held for two weeks on the Black­feet Indian Reservation.

The Run­ning Crane fac­tion has said they will release pay­checks only after a new elec­tion board is in place, and the Sharp fac­tion has made no indi­ca­tion they are will­ing to com­pro­mise. So with noth­ing to break the polit­i­cal grid­lock and only the hopes of an uncer­tain elec­tion on the hori­zon, the peo­ple of the Black­feet tribe must wait.