For months, members of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council have said the divisions that have plagued its government for nearly two years would be sorted on their own or resolved during the 2014 election. Now, it’s unclear if that election will even happen and the Bureau of Indian Affairs has raised serious concerns that the June primary is in “jeopardy” because a proper election board has not been seated.
In a letter to Blackfeet Chairman Willie Sharp Jr., the acting superintendent of the BIA Blackfeet Agency said if the full tribal council did not agree on an election board by April 3, it would be hard for the government to organize and run a fair election on June 3, as required by the Blackfeet Constitution and election rules.
“Failure to do so puts the 2014 Tribal Election in jeopardy,” Acting Superintendent Thedis Crowe wrote. “This timeframe leaves the Tribal Election Board with a compressed schedule of approximately 60 days to coordinate, organize, advertise, certify candidates, order ballots, and schedule the primary election to occur on June 3.”
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 Sharp and Forrestina Calf Boss Ribs, who reappointed suspended tribal members Bill Old Chief, Cheryl Little Dog and Paul McEvers. Sharp’s faction 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, who don’t recognize the members appointed or reappointed by Sharp’s administration. Because the council is split, neither side has a quorum of seven members, as required in the constitution.
The BIA recognizes all members except the two appointed by Sharp’s faction, Goss and Vielle.
On March 18, Chairman Sharp’s faction appointed a five-person election board. Sharp said that the election will go forward and that an election board does not have to be selected by the entire tribal council. He said in the past, the tribal documents director has selected the five-person board. Sharp also said he has invited the BIA to observe the election, but other than that the federal agency should have no role in how it takes place. On April 3, Sharp sent a letter back to the BIA informing it of his position.
“The election will go on and the BIA has no right to intervene on an internal matter,” Sharp said. “ We are striving for a fair and honest election.”
But the faction of the tribal council opposite the chairman disagrees and says the election board that was appointed by Sharp on March 18 is illegal. Augare said that if the two sides cannot agree on an election board than the last legal one from 2012 should be reappointed.
“If we can’t appoint an election board then we’re in uncharted waters,” Augare said. “Does this mean we’ll continue to operate in chaos?”
Sharp said that Augare’s concerns are irrelevant because in his opinion Augare is no longer a member of the tribal council. In October, Sharp’s faction tried to remove Augare and Guardipee from the council but the legality of that move was questionable. On April 3, Sharp tried to terminate Chief Old Person and Running Crane as well, but again, it’s unclear if that was even legal. Sharp said he had given the two members plenty of opportunities to return to tribal headquarters and rejoin his side of the council. In documents obtained by the Beacon, the tribal council said it was terminating Old Person because he had damaged the tribe’s financial stability, failed to attend meetings for over six months, tried to appoint his own election board and claimed to be chairman of the tribal council.
“They’re done,” Sharp said of the Blackfeet Nation chief and Running Crane. “Six months is a longtime to wait for someone to come back to work.”
In an interview with the Beacon, Old Person said Sharp’s attempt to terminate the chief was invalid. Old Person is the tribal council’s longest serving member and was first elected in 1954. In 1978, the family of the last Blackfeet chief, John Two Guns White Calf, who died in 1934, bestowed the honorary position of chief upon Old Person. The chief has also served as the Blackfeet Nation’s representative to the outside world and has met every United States president since Harry Truman and was even invited to Iran in 1971 to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. Old Person said the situation that has divide the tribal council is the worst he has seen in his 60 years in government.
“I’m not surprised by anything they’ve done and none of it is valid,” he said. “This is getting out of hand. I’ve been here for a long time and this has never happened before.
“It’s not good for the Blackfeet Nation,” Chief Old Person said.
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