Anthony Hill: The Process of Constitutional Reform: What Gila River Indian Community Did and Why

Native Nations Institute

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 consider as they engage in constitutional reform.

Resource Type

Hill, Anthony. "The Process of Constitutional Reform: What Gila River Indian Community Did and Why." Tribal Constitutions seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. May 2, 2012. Presentation.

"Good morning, everybody. No, good morning, everybody. Somebody doesn't want me to talk. This morning I signed a paper allowing the [Native Nations] Institute to videotape me and I hope I'm not all greasy popover face up here, shiny and everything. First of all, I want to say it's a privilege to be here amongst all of you, and I share the concerns that you have for your communities and for your nations about the place a constitution holds. It is supposed to be the bedrock of everything that we as a community, we as a nation, do and so to revise it and to undertake that revision is a very serious matter, and I applaud all of you for being here and for paying attention and for trying to learn from each other, because I think that's the best way to learn is to learn from one another and to learn from the examples that the other communities and nations have undertaken. I hope all of you are enjoying yourself here in Tucson. This is an absolutely beautiful city. I say that because I went to undergraduate school at U of A [University of Arizona] just down the road and it was probably the most wonderful part of my life. I was driving here and that Chinese Buffet is still there amidst all that construction on the road. I can't believe it. I know where I'm having lunch.

My name is Anthony Hill and I'm the Chief Judge for the Gila River Indian Community. Gila River is located immediately south of Phoenix. For those of you maybe if you flew into Phoenix and you drove to Tucson, you can tell where the reservation starts. It's all these homes and stores and power lines and then it's just desert. Well, it's not -- there's a casino there. That's where Gila River is and there are about 20,000 enrolled tribal members. Half of them live on the reservation and half of them live off. A vast majority of them do live in Phoenix. The community is divided into what we call seven districts. Basically those are zones. I think in Navajo they call them chapters. So we have seven areas in our community.

I'll just get started, I guess. That's the best way to do it. And you'll forgive me for my simpleton PowerPoint presentation. I don't know...there we go. It works. I just want to give you an overview of what we have currently in place. I'm sure you've heard the term IRA [Indian Reorganization Act]. We have an IRA constitution, constitution and bylaws. And the current makeup of that constitution is that obviously there's a great deal of reference to the Bureau in it, that any time the community wants to amend its constitution, it has to go through the Secretarial election process. The constitution spells out the authority of the council. It makes passing reference to the governor and lieutenant governor and a court. So in our system of government, the council is the dominate body and the entities are sort of lesser players. And the council decided back in 2006, they said, ‘You know what, we probably need to update our constitution.' Now I really can't give you any insight as to why they decided to do it right then and there because I wasn't involved in the process and I'll make reference to that later on -- the fact that the group that actually helped revise the document wasn't involved with the process at the beginning. It could be a handicap, and I'll point that out later. So in 2006, the council authorized the revision of the constitution and they named it the Tribal Constitution Reform Project, and basically this project was to be made up of eight members of the community, each of them selected from the seven districts on Gila River and one to represent the off-reservation members, and that off-reservation member happened to come from the Phoenix area. In addition to the actual task force itself, the council allocated funds for a project manager, for an outside attorney and for an administrative assistant. So as you can tell, this was pretty well funded, and it was pretty well thought out because they seemed very committed to this, versus what happens in the future, and I'll go into that.

Basically, then what happens is there's a long process of hiring a project manager, hiring an outside attorney. The project manager comes onboard and his first job is to put together a plan as to how to revise the constitution and that's where the seven-phase action plan was created. Again, this plan was created by one person and it was to help, supposed to guide our entire constitution revision process. What are the seven phases? They're all there. I'm not going to go into detail as to each one, as to what each one is. They're pretty self...I forgot I have handouts. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to drag you along. Can we pass those out? And I don't know if I have enough, but please if you're able to, please share. These are the seven phases that the project manager came up with, and this was the plan that was approved by the tribal council and they said basically, ‘Task force, you're to follow this plan.' What ended up happening is this plan is about 98 pages long. Now, as with anything in life, the more pages you get the more complicated things get and the less flexibility you'll have. Again, I'll touch on that as we go down the road. So those are the seven phases.

This is just a brief timeline as to what happened. So basically again, you see at the top, April 2006 the council authorizes the revision of the constitution, legal counsel is selected, there's a project manager that's hired, and then as you see almost a good year and a half into the actual authorization, the task force members are brought onboard. That means the council said to the districts, ‘Districts, select one member to serve on this task force,' and so each of the seven districts plus the urban members. The Gila River Urban Members Association, they have a group and it's from that group they selected their one urban member. So we didn't actually get started meeting until February 2008, almost two years after the council authorized the revision of the constitution. And that's another thing I need to point out. Time is not your friend, time is your enemy, and I'll go into that in a little more detail. You'll see after that, we got started. We had a number of successive drafts and basically to begin the process we would go to the community, we would go to the seven districts, we would hold meetings and we would ask people, ‘What do you want to see revised in your constitution?' Obviously, there are the aches and pains that people would express against the government, but also we need to keep in mind that our Gila River constitution dictates who can become a member. The membership requirement is contained within our constitution, so there was a lot of discussion on changing the membership requirement. So from those discussions, we came up with these drafts. So not only did we visit the seven districts, we visited our urban relatives in Phoenix, we went to Los Angeles, we went to San Francisco, which has a significant portion of community members there. We did a lot of online interaction with community members who were not able to come to the meetings. And from this feedback and from the feedback on the drafts, we created new drafts. So we had about four different drafts, and so we finally submit the final draft in January 2011, a little over a year ago. And as you remember from the action plan, the task force was supposed to stay until the actual secretarial election. But what ends up happening is in March 2011, the council finally gets the draft, they review it and they say, ‘You know what, let's have a secretarial election.' And then on the side, they say, ‘You know what, we're going to dissolve the task force, and we'll take it from here.' Little disappointed that day, ‘cause no one told me that they were going to do that. So now it's been sitting there since March of 2011 until this day.

And when I was first asked to come and speak to you about this process, a lot of things came to mind. Obviously I've spent three and a half years working on this project, for a few months as the vice chair person and then for the rest of the time as the chair person. It's a very draining endeavor. I had people yell at me, I had people sometimes cry in front of me, tell me their stories, and so a lot of emotions and a lot of bits and pieces came to my mind. And when I was asked to come here and relay that to you, I was trying to think, ‘What is the best way to do that?' And I think the best way is for me to sit here and tell you the things that we did to give you little tips when you go and you revise your constitution. Just like you and I were sitting down having dinner or lunch and we were just talking across the table. Little tidbits that I remember and that I'd like to give to you.

It's kind of like going camping. You could read a book about going camping all you want, but it's a completely different experience when you actually go camping, especially if there's no running water and there are no toilets. I won't go into that. My first tip to you: have a plan, but don't have a grand plan. Now what does that mean? You remember I made reference to the action plan that was laid out, the seven phases, the 98-page action plan. That was probably a little too much for this project, and it ended up becoming a straightjacket. We were bound by it. It's tighter than the coat that I'm wearing now. It constricted us, and it was so detailed it came down to what reports should look like, what memoranda should look like, what letters should look like, what the chair person should sign, what the vice chair person would sign. And so I am a firm believer in planning, but don't plan to overkill, because overkill will end up killing the project. And I mean no disrespect to the person who put this together, because I think they had good intentions.

The other part is the task force was not brought onboard until two years later, and so basically as task force members, the ones who will actually do the work, we were given this plan and say, ‘Here, this is what you're supposed to do.' Well, it's kind of like somebody buying you a pair of shoes and they're the wrong size, but you're supposed to wear them. It kind of didn't fit. So if I had any recommendation, [it] is if any of your governments anticipate revising your constitution, you go ahead and do it, but then make sure that whoever is going to do it -- whether it's members of your council or your governmental entities or you select a public citizen body to do it -- make sure you select those people at the same time, so they have some input on what this plan should be.

The plan, as it says up there, should have achievable goals within deadlines. That means however long your public consultation is going to be, put it down and try to meet that goal. Don't leave your goals open-ended, because it will go on and on and on. Good mileposts are drafts. As you see in the timeline we had up there, we did a lot of our mileposts by drafts. When are we going to get the first draft done? Okay, first draft's done. We need to take it back to the community and we need to do it in this time, get feedback, make revisions and have a second draft. How far down the road is that going to be from the first draft? And so on and so on, until you actually reach a final product. Your ultimate goal is going to be a final draft.

Fill in the details later -- I think that's what they were trying to do when they put together the 98-page action plan. They were trying to make it so detailed as to leave nothing to chance. My suggestion or my solution to that would be is to have two plans. One is your internal plan, what you as a body are going to do. That's where all the detail comes in, because frankly the public really doesn't care about your internal details. They want to see how you're going to work to get a final constitution done. They just want to see the big mileposts, so it's probably a good idea to have internal and external plans. Internal for yourself, external for the public and for those oversight agencies who may be supervising you.

And then again as I made reference, make your plan a guide, don't make it a prison, don't become beholden to it. Every time you want to do something new -- or in our case -- every time we wanted to do something new, maybe it didn't work in the last phase so we wanted to do something new, if it wasn't in the action plan, we had to go to council to change the plan so we could do that. For those of you who are on council, you know how hard it is to get to council -- all the committees, all the paperwork, all the hearings. So any time we wanted to make a change, we had to go through all that. So have a plan, but not a grand plan.

My second tip to you is have a strong organization. And it's very easy to say that, but how do you do that in real life? This is from my experience in Gila River. Of the eight task force members, they came from all walks of life. Some of them were young, some of them were elderly, some of them had been in government before, some of them had been in business before. Obviously, they're from different geographical areas, they represent different areas of the community, and they sort of wove themselves together. They brought their experiences -- not only in business or in government -- but they also brought their life experiences with them and it was actually a wonderful group to work with, because there were so many different points of view. Now those different points of view sometimes clash, and I'll be the first to tell you that we've had shouting matches with each other. I've had some of them get in my face and I've gotten into some of their faces, but in the end those different points of view helped make this a better task force. Diversity. Out of that task force you're going to need a strong leader. What does a strong leader do? And keep in mind, you're probably thinking, ‘Well, don't you have a project manager, aren't they supposed to do that? Don't you have an outside attorney, aren't they supposed to do that?' No. That was for the task force to do, and we had a chairperson and that person was our leader. That person was the one that went to the council and to the committees to make reports. That person was the one that fielded inquiries and questions. That person was the one that got yelled at and cried at and called all kinds of names in the book. So you're going to need a strong leader who can stand up to that pressure and who can stand up for your project, because as you know in Indian Country, we have a bad habit of attacking one another, even when we're all trying to do good. And so there will be elements out there who will come out and who will attack your project, your revision. You need a strong leader to stand up to that kind of pressure, a strong leader to speak for your project.

Supportive members. What do I mean by that? I mean support that comes from government agencies. As the task force, you will probably have to rely a lot on government agencies. We had to rely a lot upon the council office, the executive office of the governor, lieutenant governor, our enrollment office because we were looking at the issue of membership. Our enrollment office played a great deal, had played a great role in this project. And if you are able to budgetary wise, I would strongly recommend that you do hire outside counsel and some additional support staff, because they will take so much off of your plate. And the reason I say that is because -- and I'm not trying to paint a broad brush picture of attorneys who work in the tribe's offices -- but they will be looking out for their client's best interest, and oftentimes that's either the council, the governor or the lieutenant governor, or some other government agency who may not want to see the status quo changed. As I said earlier, our constitution is heavily geared towards the council. So unfortunately, what ended up happening is a lot of the people who worked in the law office were running interference on this project. They were trying to throw little roadblocks in the way. They were there to -- yes, they always said that they would be supportive -- but you could tell they were lobbying and they were actively participating on behalf of their clients. So it was so good to get outside legal help that gave you unbiased information and feedback.

My next tip? Communication is so important, ‘cause you will be communicating with a lot of people. Not only do you have to communicate internally with your task force and the people you're working with, you have to communicate with decision makers, whether that be the council or some other elected body. You need to keep them up to date because the more they know, the less questions they'll be asking of you down the road. Communicate with the people. Obviously, that's so important, and we would think it's obvious, but a lot of other constitutional efforts, they didn't do that. You may have heard some people lock themselves up in a room and they come up with a constitution and they try to give it to the people. It usually doesn't work like that. We had to go out to the people constantly, communicate with them, listen to them, and we tried to be creative in the ways we do that. Obviously we did that through meetings, face to face. We did it on the internet. We actually ended up -- when we started the project we got our enrollment office to give us the address of every enrolled member and we sent them basically a little pamphlet on the project and how they could become involved. So every enrolled member over the age of 18 got that pamphlet and they were made aware, ‘Hey, we're revising our constitution, look out for future information.' We maintained a website, so we put updates on there on what we were doing. We put our drafts on there. We even had special editions of our newspaper where they actually printed the whole draft constitution that we had come up with, so that was pretty neat.

The fourth tip, productive public meetings. We could go to a meeting and we could talk all we want, but something should come out of it. Make sure you get something out of it. One of the things I found is when we went to these meetings, we had to start from step one, the basic question, ‘What is a constitution?' You'll have to tell some people what a constitution is and how does it function in our current form of government. We called it Constitution 101. We actually did a PowerPoint and we went through our entire current constitution and we pointed out how it affects their lives. Obviously the part about membership and enrollment, people didn't even know what the quantum, we have a blood quantum. They didn't even know about that, and they didn't even know it was specified in the constitution. So that peaked their interest. When we did our public meetings, we also did exercises with our community members. The big one was blood quantum, and we actually came up with a little game we played with them on a piece of paper. We asked them to think about their own family members and if we changed the quantum, how would their family members be affected? We have a current quantum of one-fourth Indian blood. Well, let's say we changed it to one-fourth Pima or Maricopa, those are the two tribes that make up Gila River. Let's say we make it one-eighth Pima or Maricopa or one-eighth Native blood. And we had all these quantities listed, and we would ask people to think, ‘How is this going to affect me, how is it going to affect my children and my grandchildren?' So they became involved in it, they had a say in the quantum issue.

Again, time. Time is really your enemy, and time becomes your enemy when you take I think four years to revise your constitution. And when I look back on it, that's really nobody's fault. It was just so many factors that came together, and if you can try to move expeditiously, try to move as fast as you can.

The draft, the actual document itself. Obviously, you probably talked about amendments versus revisions. We ended up doing a wholesale revision to our constitution. Take your suggestions from the people because some of them, although they aren't lawyers, although they aren't government officials, they have a pretty good idea of what they want to see in their government. Don't be afraid to look at other examples, especially to the U.S. Constitution and other non-Native constitutions. You probably want to stone me now and think, ‘Oh, my god, he's sold out to the white man.' No, I have not. It's because I have a tie that's choking me on, I have not sold out. But there are some fascinating tidbits in these constitutions that you could incorporate into your own. Or they can lead to new ideas. So please don't close your mind to outside examples. We looked at hundreds of Native constitutions as well, so all of that played into an equal factor.

A constitution for the people. We tried to make our constitution so that everyone who picked it up and read it could understand it. Simple constitution that wasn't all lawyered up.

Just a few other little tidbits. I am not a hoarder and I'm not on TV and my room is not full of paper or anything, but keep all of your records. I can't tell you how important that is. Every scrap of paper we as a task force received, we kept and it is all recorded. There are banker boxes of paper. Why did we do this? Because the last time the community tried to revise their constitution in 1990, we asked for the records and we were given about two-dozen pieces of paper. That was all that existed. So now if someone asks for the records from this endeavor, there are about five or six banker boxes full of records so that no one will have to start from scratch.

Pay attention to the small stuff. Don't go over budget. Meet your timelines and meet your deadlines. That's so important. Keep an arm's length from your constitution. What does that mean? Don't become so attached to it -- and I'm talking about those who are revising the constitution -- don't become so attached to it that you're closed off to suggestions. Unfortunately we had people become, on our task force, become so attached to the constitution that they had helped draft, they refused to entertain any ideas of changing the draft. There actually turned out to be a little fight, because we thought some of the changes proposed were good, but some of the task force members refused. They said, ‘No, no, no, no.' Keep your constitution at an arm's length. Don't become too attached to it.

And the last point that I have, it's something that I hope that you'll take with you. A new constitution will not solve all your nation's or your community's problems. We had a lot of people thinking that, ‘Hey, if we have a new constitution, we're going to cut down on drinking, people are going to get arrested less, mothers and fathers will raise their children right.' I wish, in a perfect world, that if we just passed a new constitution that would make everything all right in our communities, but we know that that's not going to happen. Unfortunately, what some people -- they were getting stars in their eyes and they were saying, ‘You know what, this new constitution will lead to a utopia.' It's not going to happen, and sometimes you have to tell people that. It's not going to solve all your problems but I think it's a start to a better government.

And basically those are my tips to you. I hope you found them helpful. If you didn't, I apologize. Tell them not to bring me back here again. I just want to give you one note, though. At the beginning, I said that the project had stalled basically. They dissolved the task force, they took the draft, no action has been taken on it. Well, today, hopefully this afternoon, the council is again entertaining the draft constitution and they will hopefully call for a secretarial election. Keep your fingers crossed, please. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen."

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