Six months after the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council fractured amid political unrest, protesters returned to the streets of Browning last week. Their message: “We’re still here.”
“We’re just making a statement,” said protestor Nathan DeRoche in a phone interview. “We decided we needed to have a march to show people we’re still here and still moving forward.”
Last July, four members of the tribal council, William “Bill” Old Chief, Cheryl Lynn Little Dog, Woodrow “Jay” Wells and Paul McEvers, were suspended from their positions for allegedly violating the Blackfeet Constitution. Then on Aug. 27, Chairman Willie Sharp Jr. declared a state of emergency on the Blackfeet Reservation, over fears of violence and protests.
On Jan. 15, Little Dog filed a lawsuit in tribal court in an attempt to regain her seat on the council. The complaint states that Little Dog, who was elected in 2012 and served as tribal secretary, was wrongfully terminated.
Phone messages left for Chairman Sharp and other remaining members of the tribal council last week were not returned.
The Blackfeet tribal council is the governing body of the reservation and is usually made up of nine members, including a chairman, who serve four-year terms. Since July, only five people have served on the council, including Sharp, Earl Old Person, Forrestina “Frosty” Calf Boss Ribs, Shannon Augare and Roger “Sassy” Running Crane. Calf Boss Ribs and Augare are both currently serving in the Montana Legislature.
“We feel this is a constitutional crisis and that (the federal government) needs to step in,” said Roberta Cross Guns, an attorney representing Little Dog.
Cross Guns said since only five council members voted to suspend Little Dog, and a quorum of six is required to expel a member, the move was illegal under Article V, Section 2 of the Blackfeet Constitution. Last fall, Augare argued the suspensions were legal 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.”
Tribal members tried to get the federal government to intervene in the dispute last summer. On Aug. 31, acting assistant secretary Del Laverdure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs attempted to set up a meeting between the two factions, but Sharp told him the issues had been resolved and mediation was no longer necessary. Last week, Cross Guns again appealed for help from the federal government.
In a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Cross Guns said the dispute on the Blackfeet Reservation would hurt economic development because, in her opinion, the current council has no authority to enter contracts with businesses or other parties.
“My client, as well as many members of the Blackfeet Tribe, is very concerned about the lack of authority and the potential loss of revenues to the people and tribal government because contractors are wary or have, in fact, engaged in illegal contracts,” she wrote in a letter dated Jan. 24.
Cross Guns concludes the letter by asking the federal government to take over the tribal council and establish an interim board until the legal and constitutional issues are resolved.
Meanwhile, protests have continued in Browning and even Helena. On Jan. 7, a small group of Blackfeet members held a protest in the capitol building during the Montana Senate’s opening session. Then, on Jan. 31, another group marched through downtown Browning and then circled tribal headquarters. DeRoche said the protesters have remained peaceful and only want their message heard.
“We want to let the people know what’s going on here and on this reservation,” he said. “We want to bring awareness to this.”
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