Five newly elected members of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council were sworn into office Thursday amid calls for unity, only to have the ceremony quickly devolve into infighting and angry accusations.
The new tribal legislators carry with them the hopes of many of the Blackfeet people that a majority of fresh faces on the tribe’s most powerful elected body will end the impasse that has hamstrung tribal government in Browning for nearly two years, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
Browning business owner Harry Barnes was elected tribal chairman, narrowly defeating William Old Chief, who is now entering the third year of his four-year term of office. Old Agency District representative Iliff “Scott” Kipp was elected vice chairman, and former tribal forestry department head Tyson Running Wolf was elected secretary of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council’s Executive Committee.
Hopes ran high for ending a bitter divide on the BTBC that has been at the root of mass firings, unpaid wages, threats from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to defund the tribe’s judicial system and a revolving series of expulsions and appointments that has seen 14 people lay claim to a seat on the nine-member BTBC since 2012.
Yet, despite appeals for healing and reunification, it quickly became apparent Thursday that the issues dividing the Blackfeet people run deeper than merely the personalities of the tribe’s council members.
The inauguration ceremony began early with a nondenominational prayer service. One by one, religious leaders from most of the tribe’s churches, both traditional and Christian rose to speak to the audience; asking them to join in prayer for the success and well-being of the new council, as well as for healing for all the Blackfeet people.
Within minutes of the conclusion of that prayer service came the first indications that not all had been forgiven.
As a procession began to form at the east entrance of the dance arbor where the inauguration ceremony was to take place, an argument flared up between Old Chief, outgoing Councilman Leon Vielle and Barnes. Neither Old Chief nor Vielle were willing to recognize the council membership of Earl Old Person, and they protested allowing him to join the procession with the rest of the BTBC members and refused to provide Old Person with a seat at the inauguration table.
Both Old Chief and Vielle voted in April to expel Old Person from the BTBC for abandoning his position as a council member.
The reason given at the time of that resolution was that Old Person had been absent from council meetings since October.
It was in that month that the nine, federally recognized members of the BTBC split into two distinct and opposing factions. Those nine council members have not all met in a single room together for more than eight months. Many Blackfeet consider Old Person chief of the Blackfeet Tribe.
After opening ceremonies and an official declaration by Sharp that the 2010-2014 term of the BTBC had now ended, both outgoing, incoming and incumbent council members were permitted a few minutes to address the audience.
All proceeded well, with outgoing council members making references to their many accomplishments or speaking to the need for the council to move ahead toward the betterment of the Blackfeet people.
Then incumbent Councilwoman Cheryl Little Dog took the microphone.
Little Dog began quietly, but her voice rose as she began leveling criticisms at everything from the actions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to the ineffectiveness of Affordable Care Act, to the failure of the council to pay tribal employees over extended periods in December and then again this past April.
Many of Little Dog’s statements were applauded enthusiastically by members of the audience, until she criticized Old Person.
“A leader, a chief would not let his children suffer without heat .” Little Dog tried to shout above the crowd.
Tribal police sent to provide security at the event began to assemble near the entrances of the venue, but the shouting eventually died down and Little Dog returned to her position at the table.
Two speakers later it was Old Person’s turn to take the microphone.
A loud standing ovation greeted him as the nearly 90-year-old council member walked slowly toward the podium. Other audience members simply sat on their hands.
After a brief speech delivered in his native Piikani (Blackfeet) language, Old Person began by saying, “It’s very sad to have to have an inauguration such as we are having.”
“We have to have a new start,” he said a little later. “We have to have something to go on.”
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