BROWNING – Against a fire-red sky, Nathan DeRoche screamed into the summer evening air.
“It’s time to make our voice heard!” he yelled into a hastily set-up microphone. “We won’t stand for corruption!”
The alleged corruption DeRoche and about 30 other tribal members were protesting on Aug. 31 has fractured the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and the nation it serves. Since June, five elected councilors on the nine-member board and more than two-dozen tribal employees have been suspended, expelled or fired.
The five councilors who remain on the board say the recent firings were necessary to preserve the dignity and structure of the reservation’s government. And federal agencies still recognize Chairman Willie Sharp Jr.’s administration.
Protests in Browning have become commonplace, with one resulting in two arrests last month. On Aug. 27, Sharp announced a state of emergency that is still in effect. In interviews both on and off the reservation, some people have said if the situation is not resolved violence could break out.
Others, like former chairman and now-suspended Councilor Bill Old Chief, worry about the long-term effects of the conflict. He said the Blackfeet – once called “the most powerful tribe of Indians on the continent” by author George Catlin in 1866 – will either emerge stronger or permanently scarred.
A few days after the protest, DeRoche sat at a kitchen table clinching a Marlboro Red.
Earlier this summer DeRoche ran for tribal council, promising to end corruption on the reservation. He lost the June election, but has continued to criticize the administration. He says his vocal opposition to the government is why he lost his job, was evicted from his house and arrested in August.
The divisions on the tribal council first surfaced in the spring, when former Chairman T.J. Show’s administration suspended Councilor Jesse “Jay” St. Goddard during a special meeting on March 26. St. Goddard’s colleagues accused him of intimidating tribal employees and authorizing an illegal moose hunt. He denies the allegations.
On June 18, the council arranged a hearing to allow St. Goddard to defend himself. His lawyer called March’s meeting illegal because some councilors, including St. Goddard, Jay Wells and Paul McEvers, were not given proper notice. The council denied that. The attorney also said the allegations were not enough to expel St. Goddard under the Blackfeet Constitution. But at the end of the meeting, the six councilors present voted to remove St. Goddard.
According to Article V, Section 2 of the Blackfeet Constitution, tribal council “may expel a member for cause by two-thirds or more members of the entire Blackfeet Tribal Business Council voting for expulsion.” But some tribal members maintain the action was illegal because only six councilors voted. Those who voted in favor of expulsion disagree, saying only six members need to be present to conduct business.
After his removal, St. Goddard sued the council in tribal court. Chief Judge Dawn Running Wolf, who had served in that position since 2010 and graduated with a law degree from Arizona State University in 2003, recused herself from the case because she was appointed by the council. She began looking for a judge from outside of the reservation and submitted a name to the council. According to Running Wolf, the tribal council rejected the choice and picked its own judge. Running Wolf then reported the council’s actions to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She said the council fired her late last month.
“I don’t know of any judicial system where the defendant can pick their own judge,” Running Wolf said in an interview. “If they keep putting their hands in the court, we’re not going to have a legitimate court system.”
On July 2, Councilor Shannon Augare made a motion to direct the Blackfeet Tribal Court to “cease from any further action regarding the case of Jesse Jay St. Goddard vs. T.J. Show and the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council.” The motion was passed unanimously by the six members present.
Augare was elected to the council in 2010, the same year he was elected as a Democrat to the Montana Senate. Before that he served in the Montana House of Representatives.
On Aug. 8, the Blackfeet Tribal Court of Appeals formally dismissed St. Goddard’s appeal. In its decision, the court stated the council was in accordance with tribal law and judicial precedent. In a press release last week, the tribal council wrote, “with respect to Mr. St. Goddard, it is time to move on.”
Meanwhile, on June 26, four incumbent councilors lost reelection, including Chairman Show. Old Chief, Cheryl Lynn Little Dog, Forrestina “Frosty” Calf Boss Ribs and Earl Old Person Sr. were elected to replace them.
Soon after being sworn into office on July 12, during North American Indian Days, a couple of new members began alleging that St. Goddard had been illegally removed from office. But the majority of members disagreed and decided not to revisit the issue.
On Sunday, Aug. 19, Councilor Paul McEvers was suspended during a special meeting. In a press release, the council stated that McEvers had violated Tribal Ordinance No. 67, which protects tribal officials from threats and intimidation. The council also said that members of McEvers’ staff were using tribal equipment to prepare petitions to remove some members and he had threatened an internal investigator who was looking into the matter.
On the day McEvers was removed, a protest formed outside of tribal headquarters. Videos of the protest were later uploaded on YouTube and show an angry group of people yelling “you’re fired” at councilors as they departed headquarters with police protection.
Absent from the protest was DeRoche, who was arrested the night before for failing to appear in court for a traffic violation. DeRoche said he never received notice of the court date and was unaware of any warrant for his arrest. He spent the rest of the weekend in jail.
The following week Old Chief, Little Dog and Jay Wells, who supported McEvers, voted on a resolution to suspend Chairman Sharp, Calf Boss Ribs, Augare, Old Person Sr. and Roger Running Crane. The resolution named Old Chief acting chairman. It also dismissed a handful of tribal employees and reinstated McEvers and St. Goddard. None of these actions were taken. A press release from the rest of the council later said the group of three had “proceeded to grossly violate the Blackfeet Constitution and their oath of office by attempting to form a new Tribal Council.”
“Confronted with these blatant violations of the Blackfeet Constitution, the majority of the Tribal Council felt that they had no choice but to suspend the three Council members in order to ensure stability of governmental operations and continuity in the law,” the council wrote in a press release. On Aug. 27, Chairman Sharp and the rest of the council voted to suspend Old Chief, Little Dog and Wells. During the vote, another protest formed outside.
The councilors who were dismissed have called the suspensions illegal. According to the Blackfeet Constitution, the council may expel one of its own members, but there is nothing about suspensions. Augare says suspensions are allowable under Article VI, sub section Q, which states the council can “adopt resolutions regulating the procedure of the council itself, and of other tribal agencies and tribal officials of the reservation.”
Inside the mostly locked-down tribal headquarters on Sept. 5, Chairman Sharp and Augare stressed in an interview that their administration is doing everything it can to move forward.
“We’re trying to calm the situation,” Augare said.
The five remaining tribal council members say their recent actions have all been legal and in compliance with all tribal law. In a press release last week, the council members said they were elected to serve everyone on the reservation and that a “vocal but small group of individuals” will not bully or intimidate them.
Both Augare and Sharp said the state of emergency declared on Aug. 27 is necessary to protect all of the reservation’s residents and property. The declaration states the suspended councilors were “encouraging lawlessness” and it gives tribal officials the ability to “request any and all available resources to combat violence.”
In late August, Sharp requested that restrictions be placed on the public use of All Chiefs Park, located near tribal headquarters. The park is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and had become a popular location for protests. On Aug. 31, the BIA Blackfeet Agency established a curfew in which the park is closed from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m., as well as rules banning disruptive activities; the distribution and posting of materials within the park; and obstructing the general public from using the park. Augare said the actions were necessary to protect both the protesters and the general public. He also said protesters would be able to use the tribal baseball fields to hold demonstrations.
“(The protesters) would stand across the road and yell at people and that’s a threat to the people who are just trying to access their government,” he said. “If anything, we’re preserving and maintaining public safety.”
Since the suspension of the three council members on Aug. 27, both sides have said the federal government needs to step in and mediate a solution. According to Nedra Darling, spokesperson for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency received formal requests from the opposing groups to meet with federal mediators. Darling said that on Aug. 31, acting Assistant Secretary Del Laverdure attempted to contact both groups about scheduling such a meeting. Chairman Sharp informed him that mediation was no longer needed and the council could deal with the issues itself. However, Darling said the BIA would continue to monitor the situation.
“Why would we want the federal government to come in here when we’re a sovereign nation?” Sharp asked.
DeRoche has been regularly leading protests in Browning, first outside of tribal headquarters and now along U.S. Highway 2.
DeRoche, who had worked as a tribal prosecutor for two years, was fired by the council on Aug. 27. His termination letter states that DeRoche had been intimidating other tribal members and that his son had missed more than 10 days of school. DeRoche denies the accusations. Also, during a recent protest, his landlord issued him an eviction notice. According to DeRoche, the landlord said it was because he and his wife had violated their lease because they had dogs in the house. DeRoche believes his landlord is a supporter of theSharp administration.
DeRoche is now living at his mother-in-law’s house. He believes the recent actions taken by the tribal government are a power grab and that officials are overlooking the reservation’s real problems. Unemployment on the reservation often hovers between 60 and 80 percent.
“You go around here, who is suffering? It’s the Blackfeet people, it’s people this color,” he said pointing to his arm.
Taking a break from yard work last week, Old Chief said what has happened on the reservation in the last few months is unprecedented. He said the federal government must step in.
“The U.S. government jumps into every single little country when stuff like this happens – they bring troops and everything,” he said. “But how come no one steps forward when it’s happening in their own backyard?”
Old Chief served as council chairman from 1998 until 2000. He was reluctant to run again this year, knowing it would be a challenge, but said he had no idea of the struggles he was about the face when he was sworn in on July 12.
“I’ll tell you the truth, I’ve hated waking up every morning since being on this council because I don’t know what I’ll face or if they’ll try and throw me in jail on bogus charges,” he said.
Since his suspension, Old Chief has avoided tribal headquarters, staying close to his home outside of Browning. Old Chief said the suspended members have continued to meet with each other, trying to create a plan for the Blackfeet Nation’s future. He does not know if he’ll ever serve again.
Old Chief has encouraged the protesters to remain peaceful, but wonders how long they will take that advice. He said in a tight-knit community like Browning, people on opposing sides of the issue often see each other at the grocery store, post office or the high school football game. He wonders how long those encounters will remain civil.
“There will be blood spilled; I see it coming,” he said. “If D.C. doesn’t get involved now, what happens here will be on their hands.”
Old Chief believes the events of 2012 will be a dark chapter in his people’s history, which might be the only thing both sides agree on. In the tribal council’s press release last week, it said the last few months have been a “difficult time,” adding the only way forward is to work together.
Old Chief said what happens in the next few weeks and months could change the course of history on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
“One of two things can happen here,” he said. “Either we come out scarred for life or we come out stronger and ready to build a better life on the Blackfeet Reservation.”
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