For more than a year, a group of tribal members have protested online and in the streets over alleged corruption and abuses of power within the Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s government.
Last week, tensions hit a boiling point.
On Tuesday, Sept. 3, seven protesters were arrested in Browning during an attempted takeover of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. The 50 or 60 people who gathered outside of tribal headquarters that day said they were conducting a “peaceful takeover” of the government and claimed law enforcement was overly aggressive. Chairman Willie Sharp, Jr. said the arrests were made to protect the tribe and its interests.
While protesters allege the Blackfeet’s conflicts stem from a corrupt council, scholars both on and off the reservation suggest part of the problem lies in a flawed government structure dating back to the 1930s.
“The types of government that tribes had before, sometimes for millennia, was thrown out for a more western style government (in the 1930s),” said David Beck, chair of the University of Montana’s Native American Studies program. “Even though these tribal communities are very old, the system of government is still new and there are still some growing pains.”
Divisions in the Blackfeet tribal government began to surface in early 2012, when the nine-person council suspended councilor Jesse “Jay” St. Goddard for authorizing an illegal moose hunt. In 2013 St. Goddard pleaded guilty to federal charges.
In July 2012, a month after the tribe’s biennial election, a group of newly elected councilors contested that St. Goddard’s suspension was illegal because only six of the nine tribal councilors voted on the matter. According to the Blackfeet Constitution, a council “may expel a member for cause by two-thirds or more members of the entire Blackfeet Tribal Business Council voting for expulsion.”
On Aug. 19, 2012, councilor Paul McEvers was suspended for violating Tribal Ordinance No. 67, which protects the council from threats and intimidation. The council, including Chairman Sharp, alleged that McEvers had used tribal office equipment to prepare petitions to remove some members of the council.
A week later, a group of councilors who supported McEvers voted on a resolution to suspend Sharp, Shannon Augare, Forrestina Calf Boss Ribs, Earl Old Person, Sr. and Roger Running Crane, and form a new council. None of those actions were taken and soon after, on Aug. 27, Chairman Sharp declared a state of emergency. That same day, Sharp led the council in a vote to suspend Cheryl Little Dog, Bill Old Chief and Jay Wells. In a press release, the ruling council said the suspensions were necessary to protect the tribe and that the councilors had “grossly violated the Blackfeet Constitution and their oath of office by attempting to form a new Tribal Council.”
Since the four councilors were suspended in August 2012, Sharp has ruled with a partially vacant council. Dozens of tribal employees have been fired and protests have become common in Browning. Opponents of the current tribal council have also been active on social media and tribal police arrested one critic, Bryon Scott Famer, in July for a comment he made on Facebook. The incident made headlines across the state and a trial has been set for March 2014.
Unable to have her grievances heard in tribal court, where the tribal council selects the judges, suspended councilor Little Dog took her case to a traditional customs court in August of this year. A traditional customs court is a board made up of tribal elders. It ruled in Little Dog’s favor and decided that an interim council needs to be put in place until a special election can be held.
Last week, Sharp said the customs court had no legal authority over the Blackfeet council.
On Sept. 3, Little Dog and a group of protesters gathered outside of tribal headquarters in Browning demanding that Chairman Sharp and the rest of the council step down. Tribal police were waiting for the protesters and Blackfeet headquarters were locked down.
“This is a peaceful takeover,” said Roberta Cross Guns, attorney for Little Dog. “We don’t want any violence.”
Inside the building, councilor and state Sen. Shannon Augare made a motion to direct law enforcement to clear the grounds of all protesters. The motion carried unanimously with four votes.
With orders in hand, police officers began to move the protesters off the grounds. Witnesses say the officers were aggressive and seven people were arrested, including members of a self-appointed security team. Little Dog, who uses a wheelchair, was accused of assaulting a police officer and also arrested. Because Browning does not have a handicap-accessible prison, Little Dog was sent to the Rocky Boy Reservation near Havre.
The following afternoon, Little Dog demanded she be released for medical reasons. Chippewa Cree Tribal Police brought her to Devon where she was transferred to the custody of Blackfeet police. On the evening of Sept. 4, Little Dog returned to Browning and was brought to the hospital where she was treated for an infection and muscle fatigue. A doctor told police she needed to be released and sent home.
Little Dog and six other protesters appeared in tribal court on Friday, Sept. 6. Six of the seven were charged with crimes including resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and assault. Charges against one protester, Michael John West Wolf, were dropped due to a lack of evidence. Cross Guns said pre-trial hearings are set for October.
In an interview with the Beacon last week, Chairman Sharp defended the arrests and said the protesters do not represent the majority.
“I know it looks bad, but we need to take measures to protect the tribe,” Sharp said. “It’s a small segment of the population who are frustrated with their leaders. Leaders they chose.”
But even if the group did not overthrow the current council as they had hoped, former councilor Rodney “Fish” Gervais called last week’s protest a success. Gervais served on the council from 2006 to 2010 and is currently finishing his master’s degree in public administration and tribal governance.
“This was a very powerful political move by the group because it brought a lot of attention to their cause,” Gervais said, referencing last week’s media attention. “They got what they wanted.”
Gervais argues that the problems with the Blackfeet tribal government have little to do with who is on the council, but how it is structured.
Like many tribal governments in the country, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council was established in 1934 through the Wheeler-Howard Act, otherwise known as the Indian Reorganization Act. Of the 1,785 eligible voters at the time, 994 members voted to create a tribal council and ratify the Blackfeet Constitution.
“In 1934, when they set us up with a government and a constitution, they gave us a system just like England’s with no real separation of power and it’s the same system that the United States had a revolution to leave,” Gervais said. “They set us up to fail.”
In June 2008, voters on the Blackfeet reservation overwhelmingly passed a referendum to reform the constitution and implement a government with three branches, much like Crow Nation did in 2001. A constitutional committee was established, but after a few years the effort faltered. Sharp was on the council at the time and said the effort was “doomed from the beginning” because of a tight deadline and a lack of funds.
Gervais said he hopes the events of the last year are what lead to renewed interest in reforming the government, like the Crow a decade ago.
“We’ve hit rock bottom and the system has failed,” he said. “That is what it has taken for change to happen on other reservations.”
Where last week’s attempted government takeover will stand in the overall history of the Blackfeet Nation is unknown, but neither side plans to back down anytime soon.
“I’m not going to stop,” Little Dog said. “I’m going to keep doing what’s right for the Blackfeet people.”
The one event that actually may bring change to the reservation will happen next summer, when Blackfeet tribal members go to the polls and elect a new council.
“The election will go on,” Sharp said. “And the people will get a chance to vote.”
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