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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Blackfeet Nation To Vote On Repeal, Replacement Of Tribal Constitution

Sign saying "Welcome to Blackfeet Indian Country."
Will Marlow (CC-BY-NC-2)

“Repeal and replace” is not just a mantra for Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate, it’s also a rallying cry for constitutional reform on the Blackfeet Reservation.

"We've been at this for 82 years," says  Joe McKay, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council.

For the past three years, McKay’s spearheaded an effort to reform the Blackfeet Nation’s current constitution, written in 1935.
"It's time to allow our government to grow. It's time to choose a different path. It's time to take charge of our own destiny," McKay says.

On Tuesday, enrolled tribal members living on and off the reservation will vote to adopt or reject a new constitution that would drastically reshape tribal government. The Tribal Business Council approved the draft 8-1 last June. 13,000 Blackfeet are eligible to vote, but election officials expect only a fraction will. If the measure passes, the new constitution would go into effect next July.

Currently, the Blackfeet Nation is governed by a nine-member Tribal Business Council, which oversees all aspects of government, from drafting a budget to appointing tribal court justices.

The proposed constitution would create a three-branch system with built-in checks and balances, similar to the U.S. Constitution. McKay says this change is necessary to protect tribal members from corruption in their government.

"The problem with the current document is that all power is concentrated in the council. The council has all judicial power, all legislative power, and all executive power," McKay says.

Tuesday’s vote is the closest the Blackfeet Nation has ever come to reforming its constitution, which is a one-size-fits all document adopted by many tribes under the Indian Reorganization Act in 1935. Most tribes later amended it to better fit their needs.

Other Blackfeet reform efforts dating back to the 1940s never made it to a popular vote. This one gained momentum after the Tribal Business Council essentially split into two factions in 2012, with each side trying to run the reservation.

After McKay was elected to the Tribal Business Council in 2014, he began holding biweekly meetings for people to draft and vote on sections for a new constitution. He calls that a democratic process, but not everyone is convinced it’s the right fit.

"They missed the boat entirely to provide us with the answers to the 2012 impasse," says  Dawn Gray, an attorney and tribal member who’s leading an opposition group.

Signs in Browning urge tribal members to vote for and against the proposed reform to the constitution.
Credit Nicky Ouellet
Signs in Browning urge tribal members to vote for and against the proposed reform to the constitution.

Gray also wants to see the constitution changed, but she wants a constitutional convention. She says not enough tribal members were able to participate in McKay’s biweekly meetings, and she’s had a hard time getting answers to her questions about the drafting process.

Gray says the proposed document gives too much power to the executive branch.
"On its face, the proposal looks like a three branch system, but when you take a close look at the executive branch, you'll see that all the same power of the one branch system has been centralized under the president," Gray says. "And then you take a look at the legislative branch, and there’s not effective checks and balances in there."

She adds it’s too vague in some key areas, like tribal enrollment, and leaves the door open for future elected officials to interpret the document at their will.

"The constitution should not leave open any loose ends when it affects membership," she says.

Gray says that if the proposed reform draft passes, it’s possible the standard for enrolling new members for tribal benefits, like land inheritance and hunting and fishing rights, could change from administration to administration.

Reform leader Joe McKay disagrees.

I dropped by an outdoor market in Browning to hear what people unaffiliated with the reform effort think.

Amid a cluster of black and red pop-up tents and the smell of barbecue, Trevor Spotted Eagle said he supports the reform effort, but adds it’s been hard to get good information about it.

"I don't think it's going to pass. I really don't, just because I think people are scared of it," Spotted Eagle says.

He says it feels rushed:

"We're definitely for a new constitution, we want a new constitution. We want that separation of powers. I think everyone's scared of something new when they don't understand it. They don’t want to vote something in and then regret it later and find out there’s something in that constitution that they missed."

A lot of people I spoke to agreed the constitution needs an overhaul, but they’re not sure this is the right way to do it. Some said they planned to vote however their elders were voting.

Wendy Bull Child said she doesn’t have enough information to make a decision:
"I need to be more aware of what's going on. There's a lot of negativity right now because of the constitution vote. I really don't know how I'm going to vote until I sit down with somebody that can, I guess, learn me more about it," she says.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is overseeing the election. It’s sent 1,800 absentee ballots to eligible voters off-reservation and will open six polling places on Tuesday, June 27, from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

See the existing Blackfeet constitution, and the proposed Blackfeet constitution here.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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