September 13, 2012
Neighbors to the north face uncertain future amid shake-ups and fears
By Lailani Upham
(L to R) Blackfeet elected Tribal Council members Jay Wells, Bill Old Chief, Jay St. Goddard, Paul McEvers and Cheryl Little Dog were dismissed on accusations of misconduct in violation of Blackfeet tribal ordinances. Members say they are fighting to remain on and serve the people. (Lailani Upham photo)
BROWNING — “It’s not internal it’s illegal,” is the voice being heard across the town of Browning in regard to the recent removal of Blackfeet Tribal Council members and the firing of tribal employees.
High tensions within the Blackfeet Reservation boundaries have been ongoing since the suspension of Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, Jay St. Goddard earlier this year.
However, the St. Goddard dismissal is not the focus of the back and forth arguments.
“Corruption upon corruption” seems to be the rumor circling within and outside the council chambers.
Council members William Old Chief, Cheryl Little Dog, Woodrow “Jay” Wells and Paul McEvers were suspended last month on similar resolution language that the individuals engaged in misconduct and violation of Blackfeet tribal ordinance 67 that was enacted to elected members of the tribal council and establish penalties for threatening, assaulting, intimidating or interfering with BTBC members when such members are engaged in performing their official duties.
The current BTBC members Chairman Willie Sharp, Jr., Tribal Vice Chairperson Forrestina “Frosty” CalfBossRibs, Shannon Augare, Earl Old
Person and Roger Running Crane are operating under an executive committee.
In an interview with the Great Falls Tribune, Chairman Sharp stated the other council members have allegedly tried to remove the current tribal members twice, and install themselves illegally as Chair, Vice and Secretary.
Little Dog stated the idea to place individuals in the seats were according to the constitution and it was only set in their absence, it was not intended as a permanent appointment.
Inside operations of the current BTBC are believed to be “unconstitutional” by some members of the Tribe, fired tribal employees and the five council members who were recently suspended from current BTBC.
The removed council members stated that the language in Ordinance 67 was amended in 1983 regarding an incident that happened to a council member being physically attacked. There is not a clear definition of the ordinance on procedure of removing council members on terms of fervent differences between members.
As of this week, approximately 40 tribal employees have been terminated or suspended, according to sources and records.
The Department of Interior Public Relations Officer, Nedra Darling stated, “The Bureau of Indian Affairs only recognizes the Sharp Administration as the legal representative of the Blackfeet people, and that the matter is internal and hopes the Blackfeet are able to resolve the situation.”
Char-Koosta News asked Darling what the consequences to the BTBC would be if the situation is not “resolved” and what could be expected on the future of the Blackfeet Tribe. Darling stated she could not comment.
Protestors have been sitting outside the Blackfeet Tribal office buildings since the first dismissal of Blackfeet Tribal Councilman, Jay St. Goddard. The group says the dismissal of the subsequent council members was “wrong.” The group added that the five council members that have been removed proved to be ears and vehicles of service for the Blackfeet people and are dissatisfied with some of operations of the executive committee’s decisions.
On August 27, Sharp declared a State of Emergency after the voted suspensions, due to “violent threats.”
Sharp stated in a Great Falls Tribune article dated August 27, “We have a large group across the way here who were reported to be issuing threats of storming the building, torching it and violence upon us – myself included and other council members.”
Sharp called in officers from the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy Reservations for protection last month. Rocky Boy force was reported to still be on location this week.
‘The Real People’ sit outside the Blackfeet Tribal office after hours, in hopes of getting their message heard on issues of open enrollment, alleged corruption, destruction of the constitution, water rights and dismissal of council members and terminations on tribal employees. The group of mostly elderly people have been labeled as “violent and threatening” by the present BTBC. Off-reservation police were called last month due to the protestors. (Lailani Upham photo)
The group who are mainly elders, women and children say the purpose of the “protest” is declare “fairness” in the operation of the actions of the Blackfeet Tribal Council and say they are not imposing “violence” but a voice and a right to state their grievances as voters of the community.
According to the Indian Civil Rights Act it is a constitutional right for people to peacefully assemble and petition their tribal government for a redress of grievance.
However, the group believes their right is being stifled.
ICRA states the “No Indian tribe in exercising powers of self-government shall make or enforce any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition for a redress of grievance.”
Old Chief says because he spoke up for the Blackfeet Constitution procedures, he was ousted.
Old Chief, who is a Vietnam veteran and has two children in the military who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and fought for the rights of the U.S. Constitution, believes as firm for his nation’s constitution.
The demonstrators identify themselves as “The Real People.” Spokesperson of The Real People, Geraldine Gordon stated, the group has been rallying after witnessing “blatant violation of the Blackfeet Constitution” and the removal of St. Goddard.
The Council voted to remove St. Goddard in June over allegations of participating in an illegal moose hunt. St. Goddard denies the illegal actions.
“Since my removal I have no venue in court. These guys are running our court system and police force which is federally funded.” St. Goddard stated the five council members who have been suspended have been asking the Department of Interior to step in and help smooth out the operation of disorder and dishonesty.
Gordon stated the group is tired of not being heard and ignored. “They (BTBC current members) have tried to do everything to stop us from holding rallies.”
The group of elders say they don’t want to give up.
Old Chief stated they have made numerous attempts to contact the Department of Interior to step in and help correct the illegal processes of suspensions and firings and intimidations to the people of the community – however not a response has been given on assistance.
In the 1830’s the Supreme Court affirmed the U.S. government’s trust responsibility to Tribes’ that entered treaties with the federal government: to protect and enhance Indian tribes and improve conditions in Indian communities.
The removed five council members remain firm in serving the Blackfeet people as elected officials. They agree that the federal government should take notice on what is happening internally.
In recent years, the U.S. has said that every federal agency has an obligation to ensure the protection of tribal governments even though the trust relationship is primarily administered through the B.I.A. Each agency has applicable law that describes its relationship to not only everyone in the country but also the trust relationship with Indian tribes.
According to the U.S. 8 circuit court of appeals United States vs. Wadena court case in 1998, tribal courts are the preferable forum to resolve most issues arising out of the rights granted by Indian Civil Rights Act. It allows legitimate tribal governments to shape their own internal policy and assert their right to self-determination, at the same time should provide individual tribal members a forum to air grievances. However, it is noted that tribal members are not able to practice self-determination when a few corrupt individuals effectively control the entire system.
Also stated in the case, it is relevant to note that tribal governments are dependent sovereigns, not independent foreign ones. As a part of dependent status, the U.S. government serves as a trustee and has a direct responsibility as a trustee to protect the civil rights granted by Congress to Natives living on reservations. Failure of the U.S. to assert criminal jurisdiction over activity on a reservation when the tribal government no longer operates legitimately would be an abrogation of the trustee relationship.
“What are they (U.S. government) going to do – wait until somebody actually gets killed? Then they’ll move in?” stated Old Chief.
As of this printing, the remaining BTBC members were unavailable for statements.