The political gridlock on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation is having real impacts on tribal members east of the divide. According to multiple tribal members, some residents on the reservation have been unable to pay for electricity, food or water because the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council has not issued payments since December. One tribal member, who asked not to be named, likened the situation to “a third-world country.”
The Blackfeet government has been plagued with problems for more than two years, but it took a turn for the worse last fall when the nine-member tribal council split. On one side are Chairman Willie Sharp Jr. and Forrestina Calf Boss Ribs, who reappointed suspended tribal members Bill Old Chief, Cheryl Little Dog and Paul McEvers. Sharp also appointed two new tribal council members last year, Allen Goss and Leon Vielle. On the other side of the council are Roger Running Crane, Chief Earl Old Person, Shannon Augare and Leonard Guardipee, none of which recognize the members appointed or reappointed by Sharp’s administration. Since neither side has a quorum of six members to vote, the tribal council can’t issue paychecks or pay vendors.
Among the vendors not being paid is the Glacier Electric Cooperative. According to spokesperson Virginia Harman, the last time the tribe paid the cooperative was in December. Harman said many of the cooperative’s members receive assistance from the Low Income Home Energy Program that is administered by the tribe. Though the tribe has not helped pay for its members’ electricity for weeks, Harman said the cooperative has continued to provide service to many members in the program in hopes the tribal government will pay it back later. She said in December, the tribal members owed $70,000 before the council finally cut a check to pay the bill. Harman said a $30,000 bill has since accrued.
“We are helping our members as much as we can through these hardships,” she said.
Harman said about 15 households did not have electricity as of Jan. 27, however they could call the cooperative at (406) 338-5400 to talk about assistance programs.
Although no council members on either side of the conflict would return calls or emails from the Beacon, internal memos show the tribal council is nowhere near reconciling its differences.
In a letter dated Jan. 23 from Augare, Old Person, Running Crane and Guardipee to Sharp and Calf Boss Ribs, the council members wrote that they had found enough money to pay employees and vendors. However, paychecks cannot be issued without the signatures of six council members.
Later on Jan. 23, Sharp sent a letter back stating that the other faction had “abandoned” its position when it set up its own government offices elsewhere in Browning. Sharp also accused the other faction of using “ghost employees” to do illegal activities.
“In essence you need to return to work at headquarters, plain and simple,” Sharp wrote.
On Jan, 24, Augare, Running Crane, Old Person and Guardipee issued another letter to Sharp that thanked the chairman for responding but refuted most of his claims.
“We did not abandon tribal headquarters; you literally threw us out!” the letter read.
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