Blackfeet Constitutional Reform Faces Opposition Despite Early Support
Every four years, Americans line up at the polls to vote in a new executive. We call it nation-building. But the nation-building that Americans will do in November pales in comparison to what members of the Blackfeet Tribe are doing right now.
"Tribes are at the point, Blackfeet in particular, of working through some of those same issues and building a nation that works for its people," says Monte Mills, an Indian Law professor at the University of Montana. "That's not a quick or easy solution. It takes time."
"Our country has been trying to figure out what the constitution means for over 200 years now," he added.
In June, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, which is the governing body on the reservation, voted 8-1 for sweeping constitutional reform. If the new constitution wins a majority vote from tribal members in a special election to be scheduled later this year, the Blackfeet’s entire structure of government will change.
The current constitution was drafted in 1935 under the Indian Reorganization Act. That document was one-size-fits-all, which most tribes later amended to better fit their needs, says Mills.
"A lot of those structures didn't align with traditional governance or the way the tribe had been governing itself," Mills says.
That became abundantly apparent in 2012, when the Blackfeet council essentially split into two factions, each trying to run the reservation.
"There was no independent forum to go to resolve the conflict and restore order," says Joe McKay, a councilman voted into office in 2014 at the tail end of what he calls the government meltdown.
McKay says the tribe’s IRA constitution, with its single branch of government that acts as legislature, executive and judiciary all at once, was largely to blame.
Once he was in office, McKay started holding biweekly meetings with people who wanted to see major changes. Every other Tuesday, they’d bring casseroles and chilis to the chambers of the business council, where they’d discuss different structures and forms of government. In small groups, they wrote out sections for a new constitution to be voted on by the whole group. The meetings were open to all tribal members but had a core group of roughly 20 people.
"This effort is about redefining how we govern ourselves right now, not redefining who we were," McKay says.
The new document would get rid of the Tribal Business Council and establish a new, three-branched government. It outlines term limits - three years - establishes formal legislative sessions - twice a year for 30 days - creates a bill of rights and lists the responsibilities of the executives, legislators and courts.
"This is a complete overhaul of government," McKay says.
In short, McKay’s group drafted a tribal version of the American constitution.
But not everyone thinks that’s a great idea.
"If this was really for the Blackfeet, I'd be with it. But I know it's not," says Scott Kipp, who voiced the one dissenting vote on the Tribal Business Council in June. He says it’s obvious the tribe needs change, but this document isn’t the right change.
"I believe that the new constitutional reform with the setup, the government that they have, it's too broad, it's too vague, it's not going to deal with the daily needs of the people," he says.
Kipp says that based on his experience as a councilman, 30-day legislative sessions won’t be enough to handle the problems that come through the door of the Business Council. People come to the council with a host of issues - benefits checks not coming in on time, petty disputes between neighbors, trouble finding a stable job - and they’re used to council members being there to help.
Kipp says that after the tumult of the past few years, when the government is finally getting back on its feet, many tribal members want to see smaller changes to the current government, not a complete overhaul.
"There's too much to this, to our government, to our people's needs, and this will not meet it at all," he says.
It’s been slow to amass, Kipp says, but opposition is growing.
"When I voted against it, I became the voice of the Blackfeet, because I know that a lot of Blackfeet out there were against this."
The reform is by no means guaranteed to pass. The 8-1 council vote in June was just the first step of a long process.
The drafted reform document is now in the hands of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has 180 days to review it to ensure it doesn’t conflict with existing federal law. The BIA will then administer a reservation-wide vote. If it passes by a majority vote, there will be a two-year grace period to usher in the new constitution.
As professor Monte Mills says, "It's a lot to do in a pretty short time frame."