Chris Hall: Cultivating Constitutional Change at Crow Creek

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Native Nations Institute
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In this informative interview with NNI's Ian Record, Chris Hall, a citizen of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and a member of Cohort 4 of the Bush Foundation's Native Nation Rebuilders program, discusses Crow Creek's current effort to reform its constitution, and the importance of fully educating and engaging Crow Creek citizens in that process.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Bush Foundation.

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Native Nations
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Hall, Chris. "Cultivating Constitutional Change at Crow Creek." Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, The University of Arizona and the Bush Foundation. Spearfish, South Dakota. April 25, 2013. Interview.

Ian Record:

“So I’m here with Chris Hall, who is a member of Cohort 4 of the Bush Foundation’s Native Nation Rebuilders Program. Chris, welcome.”

Chris Hall:

“Thank you.”

Ian Record:

“Before we get into the questions and discuss your experience in the Rebuilders Program and talk a little bit about your own nation, why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit more about yourself; what you do, where you come from.”

Chris Hall:

“I come from the Crow Creek in the Big Bend District on the Crow Creek Reservation, born and raised there. I won’t say I grew up there because I refuse to grow up, so that’s just a deal there. But yeah, I’m working with my nation in the hopes of improving our situation.”

Ian Record:

“So let’s talk a little bit about the Rebuilders Program and what led you to this day today, where you’re here at Spearfish, South Dakota, with no cell coverage, and you’re here learning with folks from other tribes across the region?”

Chris Hall:

“I think it was the state of our nation. After college, I had come back home after working on the East Coast and going to school, had come back home and really had an interest in getting involved. And when I did start, begin to get involved, I realized that there was some real issues that our leadership was struggling with and just one afternoon in a council meeting offered help. They were indicating they were overwhelmed and they were needing help so I simply said, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’ and was taken up on the offer. And they needed some help with their constitution revision, which hadn’t been done in a while. And so I stepped into that role.”

Ian Record:

“So you’ve had a few…you’ve been part of a few convenings of the Rebuilders Cohort 4 group now, and from your own personal perspective, what have been the highlights of the program thus far?”

Chris Hall:

“Oh, you know, the people are incredible, the leadership tools that we’re gaining, the support not just from the Bush Foundation and Native Nations Institute, but the cohort members themselves just has a real family feel and that sense seems to deepen with time. This is our third session out here in Spearfish Canyon and it really feels like we’re a family. We’re talking about getting together on each other’s land bases, reservations, and helping each other in an ongoing effort to just be together, because I think we’ve found strength in coming together. And we all have a commonality in our language and in our situations, a lot of familiarity with each other’s situation and now we have a common language that we can approach that with, and it feels really, really comfortable because we’re with like-minded individuals.”

Ian Record:

“So you’re not the first rebuilder from your nation that’s gone through this program or is going through this program…”

Chris Hall:

“Correct.”

Ian Record:

“…There’s been some others, but I would imagine there’s a number of leaders in your…current leaders in your nation that don’t know a lot about this program, perhaps don’t know the value that it can have or perhaps is having for your nation. Can you talk…if you had an audience with the tribal leadership of your nation about this topic, what would you say to them? What would you want them to know about the Rebuilders program?

Chris Hall:

“Well, I would assume that they are a lot like me. I would assume that with a desire to help, the first thing you seek out is resources. And one of the resources that I was looking for was information, information for my toolbox, for my toolkit, and I would think that current leadership and future leadership would want those tools so that they could address and compete on a level playing field with other leaders who are speaking the same language and talking about the same constructs, so that again, that we can all get on the same page and we can all move forward together. I’m beginning to see that it’s not each nation on its own path -- inasmuch as that is what’s going on -- but I sense a resurgence amongst all nations, and I feel like we are all gaining ground together and I feel like that synergy is really propelling us forward. So there’s a lot of inertia, and I would just encourage current and future leaders to tap into that, to ride that wave because it’s, I believe, it’s crashing towards a good shore and I think it’s actually going somewhere positive so it’s a good thing.”

Ian Record:

“So pretend for a second that I’m somebody that works in your nation’s government. It’s the day before the application deadline for Cohort 5 of the Rebuilders program and I’m sort of sitting on the fence. I’m not sure if I want to make this commitment, I’m not sure if I have much to contribute, not sure how much I’ll get out of this program. What would you say to me to convince me to apply?”

Chris Hall:

“I would say that you could make a lot of decisions in your life that may or may not assist you, but I could reassure you that this would be one that would propel you forward. This is a program -- if I can call it a program -- that really tunes in, listens, and provides you with tools for where you’re at and where you’re really intending on going. So even if you’re riding the fence and you’re not really sure, once you dip your toe in, you’re going to know that that water’s ripe for jumping in and swimming. So I would just say, ‘Put those fears and hesitation behind you and jump in,’ because it’s a real safe environment, it’s, like I say, they meet you where you’re at with your information, there’s no one person that is going to put you down for not knowing. So it’s a really, really positive experience and I think everyone needs that.”

Ian Record:

“So you alluded to this at the outset, that in recent years you’ve become involved in your nation’s, I would describe it perhaps as an ongoing effort to reform its constitution, perhaps it’s an ebb and flow, perhaps there’s work being done in some stages and just conversation at other stages, but can you first start off by describing the nature of your involvement in the sort of constitutional reform picture with Crow Creek?”

Chris Hall:

“By nature, what do you mean?”

Ian Record:

“Like so how are you contributing I guess to the reform process?”

Chris Hall:

“Oh, okay. Initially, I was the coordinator for a committee which was formed. There was a short time frame where we were allowed to present changes to our constitution, amendments to the constitution. We were asked to formalize those -- put that in writing -- present those for the decision, whether or not to move ahead. So a lot of the initial work that I was involved with was coming to the conclusion of what did we initially want to change, what [were] our top two priorities? And so it was weekly meetings, it was meeting with the community, tribal leadership, sort of cooking all that down and refining our selection to two amendments, which we put forth to vote. So that was the initial stage of my involvement.

Since the election, and the election didn’t go through, and there were a variety of reasons for that but that was...and I sort of knew this on the onset that it wasn’t going to be easily changed, we weren’t going to make two adjustments to our foundational document and then it was going to correct all our ills. So knowing that and having that election come and go and not have anything change, there wasn’t any disappointment on my part, in that we were making effort at changing.

So now this effort continues. There’s community education, leadership education; there’s lines of communication that are open that now need streamlining. There’s a very, very large picture out there that was at first unforeseen. There’s so much involved to wrap your head around that a lot of our citizens struggled with that. So since then, I’ve been working with the community and the leaders on clarifying that picture and clearing those lines of communication and this effort is, as you say, ongoing 'cause the revision process is just that -- it’s a revision process. The last time our constitution had been revised was 20-some years ago and that’s too long.

So the process that I’m involved in right now is an ongoing process of continuing education, of making resources available, clarifying that picture for our citizens so that they realize the importance of our foundational document, which is our constitution so that we can really accurately move forward in a knowing sense, so that we’re aware of what we’re doing rather than just throwing darts at a board, which at first, that’s what it felt like. We were under the gun, we had to come up with two prioritized amendments, and we were under the time pressure and it was just a shot in the dark.”

Ian Record:

“It sounds like it was a forced process when there needs to be sort of an organic nature to it, right? Where you allow people to fully immerse themselves and engage in the deliberations about this most precious governing document?”

Chris Hall:

“That’s a wonderful analogy. It does need to be grassroots, it does need to be organic, and I refer to our constitution as a foundational document. It impacts every aspect of our governance, of our culture, of our lifestyle, and people did not realize that at first. They thought this was just a piece of paper, it’s got some rules written on it and people are supposed to follow that if you’re in leadership and it doesn’t apply to the people, the nation. That concept has changed. Their appreciation of the document has deepened. They understand that this needs…that it’s wholesale; it’s across the board. This document affects every aspect of our living and our existence. So the importance of it now, I believe more and more people are becoming aware of that. Now the issue becomes, how do we not only specify in that document what our rules are, but how does that define us and which comes first? Do we define ourselves and then produce a document or is it vice versa? I’m letting people discover that for themselves. I believe I already have arrived at the answer, but I think that self-discovery for our citizenry is really, really important I think.”

Ian Record:

“I have two follow up questions for you on that. They were not on part of our original list, but this is typically what happens. Somebody says something really interesting and I ask them follow-up questions.”

Chris Hall:

“No, I think we need to stay on script.”

Ian Record:

“No, but the first one deals with this mindset you had, this recognition you had with the sort of forced process that you first were involved with, where it’s got to be two amendments and it’s got to be done by this date; that you recognized that win or lose that vote on those two amendments that this process we’re engaged in has some value to it because we’re beginning the conversation in the community and when we revisit this issue in the future, the baseline of knowledge and understanding and appreciation for why this matters will be that much greater. Is that sort of what you were getting at?”

Chris Hall:

“Yes, exactly. Moving forward in the dark, you grope, you feel your way, you’re unsure, and there’s a lot of fear. The fear of change in and of itself, not knowing what lies within that dark room, creates impediment, creates hesitation. So with the education, with the awareness, with the resource tools, people are coming out of that darkness, they’re shedding some light on the importance of this, the importance of the nation’s desires in proportion to leadership’s desires and the balance of that. So I think this whole process has been very positive, very productive, even though looking in from the outside, it may look like it was a complete failure, contrary to that from the inside, it’s been hard won, but…it’s filled with success, filled with success after success after success. Every time someone approaches me with a question and they get a satisfactory answer, I see that success in their eye, in their expression, in the ‘Aha!’ in the ‘Oh!’ So that’s been rewarding for me.”

Ian Record:

“So the other follow-up question I want to ask you is this dynamic between do you have the constitution define who you are, or do you define who you are and then have that inform the constitution. And this is a dynamic I’ve seen play out in a lot of other nations that are wrestling with the reform question. And where I’ve seen tribes succeed more often than fail is when the discussion around constitutionalism is paired with a discussion and a lot of deliberation about, 'Where do we want to be?' Not just who we are but where do we want to head, what sort of nation do we want to be 50 years from now, because that’s provides a lens through which to analyze, 'Well, how do we want to organize ourselves, what sort of vehicle do we want to design to get us there?' Is that sort of what you were getting at with that question?”

Chris Hall:

“Exactly. It’s cart before the horse; that analogy works. How can you create a document that will govern you without knowing either who you are or where you’re headed? So in my mind of course, you have to have a…I’ll go back to the word 'process.' I think we need to make some adjustments in our foundational language document, we also will then adjust as a nation and that will reciprocate back and forth. That’s why it needs to be an ongoing process. We will grow as a nation and if we’re smart enough to create a foundational document which can stay basically structurally the same and allow it to inform our law codes and inform our conduct as a nation, these two can support each other. So ideally, that’s the way it should move forward. Whether or not it will or not, that remains to be seen, because human beings are a very complex creature.”

Ian Record:

“So let’s backtrack a little bit; we’ve been talking about the reform process at Crow Creek. What prompted the nation to realize, 'We need to go down the reform road'? What were some of the issues that you felt necessitated constitutional change?”

Chris Hall:

“I don’t think it was my feelings necessarily, but more of different factions within the nation. There were factions that were concerned about our lease and our land use. There were factions that were concerned about our youth and our elderly. There were some gaps in some of our coverage in those areas and there were areas -- which a faction of the population had highlighted -- there was no action being done, there was no one at the bargaining table for some of our greater rights and our sovereign issues. So the issue of changing the constitution grew out of, 'Where are we at, and who’s got our bases covered, who’s protecting us and how do we get this done?' And so the conversation moved around, ‘Well, that all comes from your constitution.’ And there were very few knowledgeable people that had knowledge about our constitution. It wasn’t something that people talked about. They would rather talk about issues over and over again and not having any solution in mind whereas, we know that these issues stem from a weakness in our constitution. So that’s where that comes from.”

Ian Record:

“So in a nutshell, what’s the history of the Crow Creek Constitution? Where does it come from?”

Chris Hall:

“1949, it was drafted by Vern Ashley. We were given the choice to accept an IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] constitution, which we chose not to accept, but we were forced to create a constitution in order to interact with outside governments in a mode that was understandable for everyone. So we adopted a constitution -- again, sort of force-fed -- but we are a treaty nation, and we did not really agree to the IRA, although we had to concede to creating a constitution. The constitution that we ended up with was drafted in a language that was foreign to most of our citizens at the time, and which has fallen out of date to the point where it’s very, very, very weak and very outdated.”

Ian Record:

“So Vern Ashley was…what was his background? Was he a tribal citizen or…?”

Chris Hall:

“Vern Ashley is one of our elders and he still exists. He had a legal background, and I’m not sure if he was asked or volunteered or what that situation was, but he drafted and that is the constitution which we have now.”

Ian Record:

“So where would you say the reform effort currently stands? If you can sort of give somebody the 101 version of where are you at, in sort of the grand arc of reform?”

Chris Hall:

“I think we’re in the embryonic stage. I really believe that our awareness as a nation amongst nations, we are realizing that this document is important and the document that we have is weak. I think the awareness that it weakens our nation is prevalent now, more so than it ever has been, and I think with that knowledge people are…our citizenry is becoming more and more committed to strengthening our nation and they’re seeing that document as key to that future success. So we are at the beginning of a long road, and we have a map [the constitution] that is an old map and it’s tattered and it may actually be inaccurate for where we’re deciding to go, where we will decide to go.”

Ian Record:

“So I’m going to backtrack a little bit to some of the examples you shared with sort of what led the nation to decide to go down the reform path. There were different groups within the community that had sort of issue-based concerns on a variety of fronts and it sounds to me like all of those at some level stem from the realization that we talk about how we’re sovereign, but we’re not fully and strategically exercising our sovereignty and then being told that, ‘Well, it’s your constitution that’s preventing you from fully and strategically exercising your sovereignty.’ Is that basically how it was playing out and where the realization was rooted?”

Chris Hall:

“I think essentially, yeah. I think people were…our citizenry was spending a lot of time pointing fingers, being very accusational -- a lot of negativity -- and I think a lot of that was placed or aimed at our leadership, our elected leadership. And when we would go outside of that circle and ask for an external enforcement, they would…the citizenry would be told, ‘Well, those are your elected officials. You elected them and they’re operating off of their constitution.’ So I think it took several generations of sort of struggling with that, and I think now we’re in a completely different communication era. I think there’s avenues of communication where we can get an avalanche of information whereas before that was not available to people. So people are able to grasp and grapple with a lot more information that’s readily available. I think that has a big impact on people’s awareness so that they have really queued in on this and they’re to the point where they’re saying, ‘We’re not really wanting to blame, finger-point, because our leadership is actually in the same position as the citizenry; they’re not supported by a solid document and our sovereignty suffers because of it, and our leadership has suffered because of it,’ to no fault of the leaders, but because of the paradigm.”

Ian Record:

“So you mentioned this initial process and the fact that it led to a vote, which did not result in any changes. What do you feel that you and others that have been integrally involved with this current effort have learned from that first go-around? Are there lessons that you’re now applying in terms of how you’re trying to better structure the process moving forward?”

Chris Hall:

“Yeah. We…of course, we were just so anxious for change and hoping that those changes would fix everything. I think now we realize that we can still be hopeful for change, but that it’s going to take a lot more work. It took us a long time to become dysfunctional -- for the weaknesses within our governance to magnify and manifest them selves into what we have now. So it’s going to take us a little time to work ourselves out of that. We’ve learned some lessons about where the decision-makers are, who those people are, what their motivations are. I think we’ve learned a little bit more about how to move forward through what we saw as a mountain of bureaucracy. I think on the external side, there’s been some change in the bureaucratic end, which has opened itself up to our efforts more. So that has sort of eased some of the path, but it’s still a rough, rocky road that we have to walk. So some of the lessons that we’ve learned we will apply, but there are many more lessons that I’m sure we’re going to bump our heads against, but knowing that on the outset. If you set out on a journey and you know that there’s going to be storms, you’re okay. If you set out on a journey and think everything’s going to be sweet and peachy, you’re in for a surprise. So I think one of the most important lessons we’ve learned is, this is not going to be easy, it’s going to be hard and if we listen to our elder’s teachings, they told us, ‘Life is hard. Prepare, work hard, and you’ll be rewarded.’ I think a few generations maybe thought that this would just be an easy road and one of the hard lessons we’ve learned is it isn’t.”

Ian Record:

“Yeah, I think this is a common refrain we’ve heard from others, from nations who are engaged in reform is that you’ve got to dial back expectations, you’ve got to be realistic, you’ve got to understand that constitutional reform, the process is thorny and the outcome is not going to be a panacea, that it’s not going to be this sort of newly minted utopian existence the moment the new constitution is ratified, that it’s an uncertain path, but it’s one worth taking.”

Chris Hall:

“Expectations are a dangerous thing.”

Ian Record:

“So what are some of the changes -- without being too prescriptive here -- what are some of the changes that have been discussed as, ‘If we change this, if we change that with the constitution, we’ll end up with a stronger government that’s more capable of supporting the nation’s strategic priorities’?”

Chris Hall:

“Well, we’ve talked about criteria for leadership. We’ve talked about tribal sovereignty being strengthened through taking control of some of the programming that affects our tribal citizenry. We’ve talked about our land use and our resource base and how to step in and control that more for our citizenry’s benefit. We’ve talked about putting our own language in a prologue. We’ve talked about putting treaty language, because we are a treaty tribe, to strengthen that document and to reiterate to the citizenry that, ‘You are a treaty nation, you have rights, and because you have rights, you have obligations. With ownership comes the responsibility and you need to be able to shoulder that responsibility in order to properly own.’ And there are folks who want to own a resource base and own leadership who are not willing to face that responsibility. So those things, if we can instill that in a document, somehow, magically, hopefully that will transfer to future generations of citizenry that can stand firm on a firm document.”

Ian Record:

“It’s interesting you bring up this issue of obligations. We’re seeing an emerging movement among tribes that engage in reform, not just here in the United States, but in First Nations in Canada in particular, that are consciously reintegrating a sense of civic duty, civic obligation within the constitution, actually explicitly referencing if…here’s the criteria to be a part of us, of our nation, but once you are considered that, whether you’re born into that citizenry or you become a citizen through various criteria that you meet, that once you’re a citizen there’s expectations of you. It’s not just a one-sided deal; it’s a two-way street. Is that sort of the nature of the conversation that’s taking place?”

Chris Hall:

“Yes. You have to have someone have your six. If you don’t have anyone that you can rely on in tough times who has your back, then you’re not strong. So in order to have a strong nation, we all have to agree on some ground rules, we have to agree on what it means to be a nation and what it means to be a part of that nation, and that’s part of defining who we are and who is amongst us, who we call 'citizen.' So yeah, that’s a very big part of it. It’s a fundamental aspect of being a tribal citizen and not just a tribal citizen, but a citizen of any organized nation that wants to be strong.”

Ian Record:

“And at sort of an overarching level, isn’t that really ultimately about restoring balance to the nation, where it’s not…it’s no longer the government’s job, the tribal government’s job to support in its entirety the life of the nation, but the citizens themselves have perhaps a greater role to play and the government is there sort of supporting the people as they perpetuate the nation and its culture, and not simply replacing the role of the people in doing that, applying that task?”

Chris Hall:

“I think for me, philosophically, the government is a small supportive entity within a nation. I think the citizenry is the one who outwardly people see as the nation and they should be the ones that are producing. They should be the ones that are exercising that leadership, that autonomy that says that we’re standing on our own two feet. We are capable and we desire our future to be sustainable and we’re not going to give that over to a government institution and we’re not going to give that over to any large umbrella corporation that may or may not support our desires as citizens and define us differently than we choose to be defined. So yeah, it really comes down to the individual’s impetus of making the announcement and the statement, ‘This is who I am, this is what I stand for and this is what I’m willing to do to be a part of this nation.’ And you need people standing beside you that are like-minded.”

Ian Record:

“Well, Chris, we really appreciate you taking some time to share your thoughts and experience with us.”

Chris Hall:

“You’re welcome. I’ve enjoyed this. Thank you.”