After Constitutional Reform Effort Fails, Blackfeet Nation Moves Forward

Despite past turbulence, tribal officials vow to move forward as “one people”

By Justin Franz
Beacon file photo

Few members of the Blackfeet Nation would say that the current tribal government is perfect. An impasse on its nine-person tribal council that forced a government shutdown just three years ago proved that.

But despite the current system’s shortcomings, tribal members rejected a new constitution on July 27 that would have replaced the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council with a three-branch government. The secretarial election came after a small group of tribal members spent more than two years drafting a new constitution that some thought would be the answer to their problems but others believed would only make things worse.

The unofficial results of the secretarial election were 1,279 for the new constitution and 1,644 against it.

The new government would have featured an executive branch with a president and vice president; a 13-member legislature; and an independent judicial branch, with an elected chief justice who would oversee the court system and appoint associate judges. Under the current system — established in 1934 through the Indian Reorganization Act — nearly all power on the reservation lies with the tribal council, including judicial appointments.

While many, including Chairman Harry Barnes, supported the new constitution, opponents said it was deeply flawed. Gabe Grant, a former tribal council member, spent months fighting the proposal because he believed it would lead the way to open enrollment, a contentious issue on the reservation regarding who can and cannot be a tribal member. Proponents countered that the rules regarding membership were exactly the same in both constitutions.

Grant also took issue with how the new constitution was crafted, accusing its authors of leading a secretive process that did not include all voices of the community.

“We need change, we need to update our constitution, but this just wasn’t done right,” Grant said.

Proponents of the new constitution, including council member Joe McKay, who helped author the new document, refute Grant’s claim and say there were numerous public meetings on the reservation to educate members about the proposed document.

Grant said he hopes a new effort to reform the government will begin soon, but if history is any indication, that’s unlikely. The Blackfeet Nation has had the same tribal council system for more than 80 years, and while there have been rumblings about changing it for decades, almost every effort has faltered. This was the first time a new constitution was actually brought to the people for a vote. Chairman Barnes said it’s likely it could be years before another attempt is made.

“Some people are happy, some people are sad, but it’s important that we move forward as one people,” he said. “It will be up to the people if constitutional reform ever happens.”

Barnes said that while he thinks the proposed system of government would have been much better than the current one, it was handicapped by a fear of change.

“Change is always a scary thing,” he said. “That’s human nature.”

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