Anthony Hill: Constitutional Reform on the Gila River Indian Community

Native Nations Institute

Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) Chief Judge Anthony Hill, who served as Chair of the Gila River Constitutional Reform Team, discusses the reform process that GRIC followed, the current state of GRIC's reform effort, and what he sees as lessons learned from Gila River's experience.

Resource Type

Hill, Anthony. "Constitutional Reform on the Gila River Indian Community." Tribal Constitutions seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 4, 2013. Presentation.

"Last year I came here and I want to thank the Native Nations Institute for inviting me back. Apparently, I didn't embarrass them too much so they had me come back. When I was here last year, I talked a lot about the nuts and bolts of constitutional reform: what to do, what not to do, things like that. This year I'm sort of taking a step back and maybe looking at the whole picture. I'm still going to try and talk to you about the beginning and all the way to the end, but maybe we look at it from a wider standpoint because as Ms. [Angela] Wesley's presentation shows, you can successfully achieve constitutional reform, you can engage your citizens, you can make them excited about this endeavor. I don't want to be the 'Debbie Downer.' Have you ever seen that character on Saturday Night Live? ‘Wah, wah, wah.' I don't want to be that character, but sometimes things don't go right. The best plans fail. The people that are excited at the very beginning are often the first ones to drop out at the end and that's probably where I'm coming from and that's the perspective that I'm going to present to you because Gila River did engage in constitutional reform and it's something that we have been looking at for quite some time.

Our community has and I'm sure as a lot of you have, we have a 1960 IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] constitution. It has only been amended once in that time and that was when the voting age was lowered to 18. And basically, since the ‘80s there's been a movement to try and change the constitution to make it more flexible, to adapt to the times that we're living in because many people felt that, of course, having an IRA constitution imposed on you is against the idea of sovereignty, but in addition to that, our community was growing. Our community is engaged in gaming activities and with that comes economic development, comes the growth of the size of government, comes the dependence on the government. So we needed a more flexible form of government than the IRA constitution could provide. And there were attempts in the ‘80s, there were attempts in the ‘90s to revise our constitution. Those unfortunately did not go anywhere. And again, the community decided to pick up where they left off in the ‘90s.

And so about the middle of around 2005, the council, our tribal council, started talking about the idea of constitutional reform. And they decided to pursue it again and they entrusted constitutional reform to a panel of eight citizens from the community. Now you're probably wondering, where did we get the number of eight citizens? Our community is divided up into seven we call them districts, basically those are geographical areas that council people represent. So we have seven districts in our community. The eighth member was from the community members living off the reservation in Phoenix. So the council felt it was important to include them because they are members of the community and they are governed, again, under our constitution. So the community council decided we need to include them as well and they came up, the group they come up with is the Tribal Constitutional Reform Project. And our project was very well-staffed. Not only did we have the eight members of the task force, we also had a lawyer, an outside lawyer that was brought in. So we didn't have that conflict of in-house counsel, which represents the current government, also representing the task force, which was seeking to change the government, because unfortunately that does happen a lot and unfortunately it happened in the end and I'll get to that. But we had an outside lawyer, we had outside counsel. We actually had a project manager who was experienced in constitutional reform. They brought him in and put him under contract. And we had an administrative assistant. So we had a pretty good team set up.

And when the members of the task force were brought onboard, there was a seven-phase they call action plan that we were to follow to achieve our constitutional reform and the action plan was drawn up by the project manager. So that was in place before the task force members got there. And that is our action plan or that was our action plan. Some of the titles that were given to it, I certainly didn't choose these titles for the plan, but as you can see there's a lot of emphasis on reaching out to the public, just as Ms. Wesley's group did, that's what we tried to achieve as well. And the ultimate goal was to reach the Secretarial election. To revise our constitution I'm sure as you know we needed to have a Secretarial election. So that's the goal we were going on. And there's sort of a timeline for you. It took a lot longer than we expected it to and perhaps that's the first thing everyone needs to keep in mind. We had a strict timeline and with this strict timeline we should have been done I think in 2010 and we obviously didn't achieve that. So the best-laid plans do not work out and your plans...hopefully you'll have a plan when you go back and you decide you want to revise your constitution you will have a plan on how to do that. And yes, your plan will include a timeline and I'm not sure whether it's going to end up like our timeline where we are still what seven years out and we still have really no new constitution.

In January 2011, we did submit the final draft of our constitution. And I didn't put it on there because I actually couldn't fit it in, but what happened is not only did they accept the final draft, but at the same time they dissolved the reform project team. Now they didn't tell us they were going to do this, they just did it. ‘Thank you. We appreciate your help. The door's over there. See you later.' But if you recall, the phase, the seven phases would have included the reform project carrying through all the way until after the Secretarial election. So the action plan that the council passed itself, they decided to change it themselves, and they showed us the door and I think we were standing outside the council chambers saying, ‘Did that actually...? Did they say what I think they said? So we're not having a meeting next week?' ‘No, I think we're done. Go home. It's over with.' So we submitted the final draft in January of 2011 and it has sort of sat there for almost two years. What has happened to it is, when we submitted the final draft we submitted it with wholesale changes. What the council decided to do was to pick one change out of it, which is to take the Secretarial election out of the constitution and leave all the other changes on the back burner. So as far as we know, we will be having a Secretarial election this coming spring, but it will only be on one question, whether or not to remove the Secretarial election or keep it in there. The council tells me, and they reassure me, and I have friends on the council, and I believe what they say, that they will put the other revisions back before the people very, very soon. Are they telling the truth or not? Time will tell. So this is a to-be-continued story, which comes...I come to my first point.

Our constitution or our draft constitution, I guess, came out of a crisis and that's not the best way to approach this endeavor. Our community was going through a lot of things. There were some leadership tensions between the council. Our executive is called the governor. There were some tensions between the governor and the council. There was a lot of infighting. There was attempts to suspend the governor, to remove him from office. And what happened is they were planning the constitutional reform before this fighting started, but by the time they got around to approving the reform it sort of came out of this crisis, if you will, and unfortunately that tainted, I think, the whole project. So if you are looking at constitutional revision as a way of addressing a crisis or a breakdown in the government, I would probably ask you to step back because you don't want your project to be colored by this whole crisis. And during the whole time we were working on this project, the council would come in and say, ‘You know what, we want you to do this,' and then the governor would come in and say, ‘I want you to do this.' Well, who do we listen to? They entrusted the task force with revising the constitution yet they were...we were not at arm's length as we should have been. And I guess that would be my suggestion to those of you who are elected officials that if you create a task force, let them do their job. Now that doesn't mean that they're to run roughshod over everything; hold them accountable, by all means. If you're going to invest resources and you're going to invest the fate of the community with that group, you should hold them accountable. But do not use that group to a proxy to fight out your battles with one another because I think in the end that's what happened. Our task force was used to battle the other branches of the government because they didn't want to do it themselves. So remember that when you go...and I have a quote there from John F. Kennedy, ‘When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed to two characters. One represents danger, the other one represents opportunity.' In our case, that crisis came with danger and we probably should have saw it because this brewing battle was the backdrop for our constitutional reform. Your crisis should never be the driving force behind your constitutional reform. Now a lot of people will say, ‘Well, what if the crisis is because we don't have an adequate constitution?' And a lot of the problems come because many Indian communities do not have adequate constitutions. Again, I would just go back and say, things change, leadership changes, councils change. Let things settle down, let the dust settle, then start with the clean slate on your constitutional reform.

The other problem we had because our constitutional reform was born out of crisis, the changes that were made to the constitution were changes that were designed to deal with the crisis. They weren't designed to deal with the public interest in the future. They were designed to deal with things now and as Ms. Wesley pointed out, your constitution should last beyond the people that wrote it, beyond the people that are governed by it. It should go into the future and I know when we started out with this project that's what we were looking at. We were looking generations down the road and one of the examples and whether you like it or not, you look at our own United States Constitution. It has lasted over 200 years and it has served our country pretty well, with the exception of the amendments that have been added. And that's something that I think all of us in Indian Country would try to strive for is a constitution that looks into the future. But our constitution when we revised it, it was shortsighted because it was designed to deal with the crisis. And so we shortchanged our future because we weren't looking ahead far enough.

In our constitution, the blood quantum is in there and I'm sure many of you have blood quantum requirements for your membership. Despite all...there was a great emphasis on changing the blood quantum or addressing the blood quantum, but because we were so busy looking at everything else, at the end of this nearly five-year project we didn't even touch blood quantum. And that was a great failure on our part because the membership of a community is the most important thing. It is literally the lifeblood of a community and if you can't decide on who should be in your community, you're not going to have a community in the future. So that was a failure on our part because we didn't address that issue because we were so busy addressing the crisis that we...the time we were living in.

My second point to you was not only are we revising our constitution, but we're also starting a conversation with the people, and as Ms. Wesley pointed out very correctly, it's a time to engage our community because all of us know that we don't communicate enough with our community members. For those of you who are on council, even myself as a judge, I live in the community of the people that I'm supposed to be judging, but I don't communicate with them as often as I should and there's a lot of reasons for that. We're all very busy people, there are pressing issues that we have to deal with. So the revision allows for a conversation with the people. It allows us to look at, to start talking about how is our government now, and what kind of government do we see in the future. We had to do what we call -- and I think Ms. Wesley, you also pointed it out as well -- we had to do a 'Constitution 101.' That's just basically we as a task force, we had to go out to the community and explain to them, first of all, that we have a constitution. A lot of people didn't know we even had a tribal constitution. It was the first time they had ever seen that document and we went through it and we explained to them the genesis of the 1960 IRA constitution, we explained how the constitution worked, and we explained or we asked them, ‘What would you like to see changed about this constitution?' And just as Ms. Wesley's group did, we had exercises; we had surveys that we filled out. We even did exercises on blood quantum. We asked people to use their own family members and we put hypotheticals before them. What happens if we change the blood quantum to eight-percent Indian blood or something like that and we actually had them map out how it would affect their family. You'd be amazed at how much people are drawn into the conversation when it affects their own family because if we revised the constitution and set the blood quantum at a certain rate, some of their family members might not even be eligible. So it has a real-life impact on people's lives and that's one of the things I hope that when you go and revise your constitution you'll let them know that, that this document, as stale and as old as it is, it has a direct impact on the lives of the people, especially if your membership requirements are in that constitution. You have to have an open and honest conversation.

I have been the subject of many conversations in my community and some of them are not good, that's just life in politics in Indian Country. We actually have -- and I'm not going to tell you the website or anything -- we actually have a Facebook page where people talk garbage about people in our community and that's a little more open and honest than I would like to get -- I'm waiting for my name to show up on that web page -- but an open and honest conversation about our community about the state of the government. And for those of you who are elected officials, when we talk about open and honest conversation, that includes talking about you as well and some of you maybe don't like to be talked about. If you're in politics, I don't know why you would not like to be talked about, but some of that conversation is going to be about you. So please don't be too uncomfortable when the people have that conversation because they're going to look at it through your eyes and they're going to look at it through the people that are in those positions now. So be prepared for a little criticism.

When you're revising a constitution, you will have many audiences. You will have the body that you report back to -- the council -- you will have to report to the people, and you will have to report to some of the key players that are involved. In our case, those key players include the Bureau of Indian Affairs, because any revision has to go through the Bureau. So we had to keep them in the loop. So you have to make sure that, at the beginning of your revision, you make sure that you touch base with everyone that's involved because it's more difficult to pull them in later than when you do it at the beginning. Communicate with the decision-makers, and when I say decision-makers, most likely that will be your council or those in elected positions. As a task force, we routinely reported to the council on our activities. Part of the action plan that I referred to earlier, we had to get permission from the council to go from phase to phase because they wanted to make sure we had accomplished all our goals in that one phase before we could move to the next. So we kept the decision-makers informed. Communicate with the people -- that should be a given, that should be your primary goal. You have to do it from the beginning and I'm pleased that our group did that. From the moment the council authorized the revision of the constitution, we deployed out to our various constituencies and reported that this project is coming up, please keep a lookout for it, please become involved and please give your opinion. And be creative in your methods; you see the usual ways of communicating, through the Internet, through mailings. What we actually did is our community's enrollment office allowed us to have the mailing address of every adult member in the community and we mailed them out information because a lot of people don't have the internet or a lot of people are not tech savvy. They get a lot of information through the mail. So we communicated it through the mail. We have our community newspaper; we put articles in there, we put special sections of the newspaper in there. Then we communicated through our meetings. We have what we call district meetings, community meetings where we reported to those people who showed up.

If you have populations, large populations that are off the community, off the reservation, include them. Half of the people who are enrolled in Gila River, they live off the reservation. So there is a big component of people off the reservation and while we're near Phoenix, we had some of our best input from community members who lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And we actually went to go see them and we had meetings with them. And you know we had more people attend the meeting in Los Angeles than we did in some of our own district meetings on the reservation. So reach out to them and identify, where are they and reach out to them. And again, communicate with the key players. Again, as I mentioned, the key players in our case were the Bureau of Indian Affairs officials, our superintendent. We constantly kept her up to date on what we were doing because eventually that whole document will be going to the superintendent and she will look over it and she will have to forward it down the chain of command in BIA. So she was always aware of what we were doing so nothing was a surprise.

Productive public meetings: sometimes meetings drag on like I am now, on and on and on and on and you're safe because I have one minute. You always want to educate your community members 'cause as I said, when you do Constitution 101, your community members may not even know you have a constitution and they may not know what is contained within the constitution. But a bedrock principle that you need to communicate to your people is, what is a constitution? What is it, why do we need it? And that's the foundation on which you're going to build your education. You're going to educate your people. We had exercises as I mentioned earlier, the exercise about blood quantum, survey exercises that we had, feedback. Just as Ms. Wesley's group got feedback from her people, we got feedback from our people. Some of it was negative, some of it was positive, but all of it was helpful. And then catalog your results. It's interesting because when we submitted our final draft to the community council, we showed them the results of our survey and I have hundreds and hundreds of pages of survey results so they could see what the people were saying. We cataloged each and every comment, written comment that we received. So you could comment by the email, you could comment on paper and the council got a copy of each and every single comment that was made during the course of this whole five-year project. Those are the results that you want to accompany your draft constitution. Time, just as I know now, time is not a luxury. The timeline that you work out, it may not work like ours did, but you kind of have to know when to put a cap on things. Know when to stop. I think what happened is we had planned, we had followed the timeline, but we kept going back out and getting more survey results, over again and again and again. We had to put a stop to it, so don't get caught in having meetings after meetings after meetings.

The final point is sometimes we're short of the goal line, sometimes we don't make the touchdown and that's the one regret that I have about the exercise that we went through, the revision that we went through. The momentum can be difficult to maintain. People are excited about this project, they think that we're going to go back, we're going to change our constitution, rah, rah, rah and it's a long process and people sort of drop away as time drags on. So the momentum is difficult to maintain. Always keep your communication lines open with the people, that's so important. And then at the end of the day, all the hard work that you do revising your constitution, you're going to hand it over in most cases to your elected officials, to your tribal councils and we did that. This is the final report that we gave to the council. I have a copy. I keep a copy of it and I keep a copy in my office all the time. So elected officials, tribal council members, when you get this from your task force, your constitutional revision team, don't just put it aside, because a lot of people worked very hard to put this material together. Your own people gave of their time and their effort, their voice so that it could be put in front of you. And don't do what our council did and just set aside for two years and hope that it would maybe go away because it's in your hands, you're supposed to represent the people not your own interests, not in keeping power for yourself. You're supposed to represent the people. So if you do task an outside group with constitutional revision, make sure that you do reach that goal line, cross the goal line, make the touchdown; change the constitution. And I hope maybe if they have me back here next year I'll have positive news to report, but that's where we are now. And I don't mean to paint our elected officials with the same broad brush. There are a lot of supportive people in our community; there are a lot of people who care about constitutional reform, who still wish that it would go ahead. So it's a story whose ending we do not know, but I know that my time is out and I thank you for your attention."

Related Resources


Presenters Anthony Hill and Angela Wesley field questions from the audience about the approaches their nations took to constitutional reform.


Presenters from the second day of NNI's "Tribal Constitutions" seminar gather to field questions from seminar participants on a variety of topics ranging from citizen education and engagement to the role off-reservation citizens can and should play in a Native nation's present and future.


Formerly the Chairman of the Gila River Tribal Constitution Task Force, Anthony Hill describes the process that the Gila River Indian Community has engaged in as it undertakes reforming its constitution and system of government. Hill also offers some tips and strategies other Native nations should…