Darrin Old Coyote: Reforming the Apsaalooke (Crow) Nation's Governing System: What Did We Do and Why Did We Do It?

Native Nations Institute

Vice Secretary Darrin Old Coyote of the Crow Tribe's Executive Branch provides a brief history of the Crow Tribe's governance system, and explains the factors that prompted the Tribe to abandon its governance system in 2001 and replace it with a new constitution and system of government entirely of their own making.

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

Resource Type

Old Coyote, Darrin. "Reforming the Apsaalooke (Crow) Nation's Governing System: What Did We Do and Why Did We Do It?" Remaking Indigenous Governance Systems seminar. Archibald Bush Foundation and the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Prior Lake, Minnesota. May 2, 2011. Presentation.

"Good morning to all of you. My name's Darrin Old Coyote; I'm from the Crow Tribe. I'm glad to be here. I did a presentation at Harvard University for nation building on this same subject, and I'm fortunate to be asked to do this again. But I'm going to go through kind of a history of our government from the traditional form of government to the government we have today.

Reforming our nation's governing system -- and this is a quote that I used, ‘A constitution is a living, breathing entity of your government.' And today the question that brings all of us to this one location is government reform. Ask yourselves two simple questions to see if you need a constitutional reform. And this is the questions that we as a tribe, there was a group of us, asked: Is the current system working for us today or is it outdated? And does our current governing system reflect our unique tribal culture? And then we started from there. Getting started on reforming your government system, three main points: historical review of your government from pre-reservation to present day, and then establish lists of what is working and what isn't working in your current and past governing systems; set realistic goals for your government as a whole. And then -- this was the study I did -- the traditional form of government that we had as the Crow Nation.

There was a time when little boys would go with the warriors on war parties and they would call them Ichkaate or Warrior's Helper. And these Warrior Helpers would go on raids and warfare and then they became warriors. They were trained to become warriors. And then some, one that could run far, had great stamina would become scouts. And then scouts, they had scout leaders. And then your prowess as a warrior, they started offering pipes to the greatest warrior of the tribe and then these pipe carriers would then take war parties out. And then one would have to attain four deeds to become a chief: one was to strike an enemy in battle; two was to take an enemy's weapon in battle; three was to take a prize horse from the enemy; and four was to lead a successful war party. And then you became Baacheeitche, which is the term that we use for 'Good Man,' for the chief. And among the chiefs they would select 'Owner of the Camp' -- Aash Aahkee -- and he was the principal chief of the tribe. This was their way of...the people would choose their leaders that they would follow. After they would...if a man who had counted the four chiefly war deeds displayed outstanding qualities -- including generosity, kindness, fortitude, wisdom, and dependability -- then the people would naturally follow this man. And they would make public declarations about their choices. They say, ‘On this day, I'm going to follow this chief. On this day, I'm going to follow this chief.' Choosing a leader meant that the camp would not only be fortunate, but live well without threat from enemies and locating food -- and survival was kind of the main focus for the tribe at the time.

And it was a representative form of government; chiefs, band chiefs, and owner of the camp were the only ones to talk and vote on council. And the highest-ranking chief would convene the council and they would use tally sticks as ballots. And every time an issue came up, they would smoke the pipe and it would be lit by the man sitting to the right of the highest-ranking chief; the man sitting to the east and the south would speak first. And this was referred to as 'Smoke Talk' or Apsáalooke Ooppiilaau -- 'Crows Smoke Talking.' And that was our form of government -- the council.

The pipe was used to guarantee that individuals would speak with no interference. There was no interference from anybody and that individual would speak. And whatever he said, he was to tell the truth. And then they would pass the pipe over; they would discuss the issue. And the pipe was held in high reverence by the Apsáalooke; once lit, no one would talk except the one with the pipe. And then while each chief spoke, the person leading the discussion would place the ballots as represented by the tally sticks, either for the issue or against it. And they would place these tally sticks and at the end of the discussion all the chiefs would what they needed to say on this issue. And then they would take the majority of those sticks and say, the ones in the majority, they would say, '[Crow language].' They'd say, ‘The majority has ruled. This is what we're going to do.' And then one person didn't make all the decisions. And then all the chiefs would collectively decide on what the next steps would be on that issue.

And then there came a time when there was no longer need for intertribal warfare. There was no need for chiefs; intertribal warfare ended. Our last traditional chief was Plenty Coups, who passed away in 1932. And after the death of Plenty Coups, there were groups among the Crow that the U.S. government would consult with on Crow issues. They would just hand pick. They'd say, ‘You.' They'd see a person that had respectability among the tribe and they would pick that person. They'd say, ‘You can represent the Crow today.' And it was that way for years. And so these individuals gained...they're more for themselves than for the tribe. These individuals would go out and say, ‘I'm the leader of the Crow.' And anybody was a leader because the way we chose leaders back then was by those four deeds that they would attain to become the chief, to become the leader of the tribe, and they were well-respected. Even the term that we use today for chief is 'Good Man,' Baacheeitche, because they provided for the tribe, they looked out for the tribe. And whenever that person, that chief, was in the presence of the people there was respect. And now, the last traditional chief of Crow passed away and people were saying, ‘I want this piece of land,' and they're going off on their own and they would delegate groups from different districts.

Around this time from 1932 to 1948, we lost a lot of the land. We lost a lot of our...like our...I don't know if any of you know where Bozeman, Montana is. That was our first Crow agency and then the second agency was just west of Billings and then today we're at the third agency -- 30 million acres and today we have 2 million acres. Around that time we lost a lot of prime land. Today you see Paradise Valley; all the movie stars live there. I think Ted Turner lives right outside of Bozeman, Flying D Ranch -- largest landowner, private landowner. But that was Crow land. Because of all the chaos there was loss of a lot of land. And then in 1948, there [were] students that were coming back from Carlisle boarding school.

And then the Crow adopted a constitution at the time. U.S. government initiated an IRA (Indian Reorganization Act) asking all tribes to establish tribal business councils. But the Crow adopted their own form of government because they were a treaty tribe -- they didn't adhere to. They weren't a tribe that was placed there by executive order or presidential proclamation. They were a treaty tribe. And they adopted their own form of government, utilizing a council-type form of government to conduct tribal business because that's the way we conducted business was council-type. Every chief had a say in what was going on. And so instead of having leaders, they had every individual 18 and older -- Crow tribal members -- and they would elect four officials every two years. And then they would have councils every three months. And there was chaos. Every three months all the business of the tribe was voted on, discussed, in one day. And it came to a point where, in 1990, there was a chairman elected who stayed in power for ten years, being elected every two years with supreme powers. There was a resolution that gave authority over the tribal judge, the tribal police, kind of a dictator controlling the whole system. We were kind of a...and there was no term limits. And councils were held every three months: January, April, July and October on the first Saturday. And this was the only time business would be discussed on and voted on. And there was no continuity or stability.

There was a time when, I remember I must've been an eighth grader. I went to a council. My mom was the recorder for the council. She was taking minutes and so we would have to be there early. And in the back room, the tribal chairman and all of his staff, they would sit there and they would say, 'This is what we're going to do today.' They would line out which agenda they wanted to pass and which agenda they wanted to not discuss that day. And this was how the council was run. The chairman would sit up there and say, ‘I call this council to order.' And they would say, ‘Division of the house'; they would ask for division of the house to establish numbers. And so there'd be six individuals sitting right in front of the chairman and they would have, to establish numbers, they would have...a hundred was a quorum. A hundred tribal members was a quorum for the council. And so they'd be, they'd say, ‘All those people that are for the chairman's agenda, line up.' And they would run them through the line. Every tenth person they'd stop them and tally ten. ‘Alright, ten more.' And this is how they established numbers. And they'd say, ‘All those ones that were against the chairman's agenda, go through the line.' And the chairman would be standing there and he knew who was going against his issues. If there was a director, he knew. If there was a tribal employee...it got to the point where a lot of people didn't know what they were voting on. A lot of people were voting because they wanted leases for their cattle, they wanted tribal loans to buy a car, and there was a lot of vote buying. And the chairman would sit there and he would know who's going against him and who was for him. And they'd say, ‘On this issue...' and a lot of people didn't know what they were voting on but they'd say, ‘Let's go!' and they're all herded like cattle going through the line.

And then elections were held every two years; vote buying was the norm for every chairman ever elected since 1948. Every time a council was coming up, they would buy votes to pass their agenda or agendas; there's no self-sufficiency or business ventures pursued. So let's say a business deal would come to the Crow Tribe and they want to come by. We have nine billion tons of coal at Crow. A company would come and say, ‘We want to partner with you to produce a coal mine.' They'd say, ‘Next council, we'll vote on it.' And from the time the company got there, to the time the tribe voted, individuals would go to that company and say, ‘Give us money. We'll see that it passes,' under the table deals. And this happened since 1948. And then in 1999 a handful of young men consist...we met every night, almost every night, and talked about the problems with our government and discussed ways of reforming the government. It was election year and the majority of Crows wanted change. They were tired of this 10-year reign of dictatorship. It happened before but nobody paid attention. And then we visited with chairman candidates and discussed change but none wanted to deliver.

Change in our government system: young men went to the districts to hold hearings and gain support from the people to change the government system. The support from the Crows who wanted change was so great that chairman candidates were coming and wanting support from our group. And this group was all young people. One strong candidate with much support from the beginning impressed the group so much so that they supported the candidate and he was elected by a large majority to win the election in 2000. And the newly elected chairman promised change and he delivered in 2001. After much review and many discussions of the old '48 document and the traditional form of government, there was a provision in the '48 Constitution allowing the council to amend the constitution from time to time as needed. At a January 2001 council, the majority voted to amend the 1948 Constitution. The amendments were then written into a new document, which was then voted on in secret ballot; majority voted in favor of the new constitution in December 2001. The Secretary of Interior acknowledged the new document as the governing system of the Apsáalooke Nation.

And now we have a three-branch form of government. Chairman, vice chairman, secretary and vice secretary elected every four years starting in 2004. The legislative branch, 18 representatives -- three from each of the six districts -- are elected every four years -- staggered terms for two reps, then one rep elected two years later -- all serving four-year terms. We have one chief judge; two associates judges elected every four years. The executive branch duties is to implement and enforce all laws, resolutions, codes and policies duly adopted by the legislative branch; represent the Crow Tribe in negotiation with federal, state and local governments. The legislative branch duty is to promulgate and adopt laws, resolutions, ordinances, codes, regulations and guidelines in accordance with this constitution. The judicial branch shall have jurisdiction over all matters defined in the Crow law and order code. Stability was achieved with this 2001 Apsáalooke/Crow Nation -- constitution. There is more stability. Continuity was achieved. Business could be conducted in a more timely manner. All issues pertaining to the Crow tribe could now be discussed and reviewed before being voted on. Separation of powers along with checks and balances is now in place. Majority rule is instrumental on all decisions made by the Apsáalooke Nation.

And today, the constitution that we have, Department of Interior acknowledged it. We didn't have them approve it. We didn't have them say, ‘That's the document to use.' We said, acknowledged this as our constitution. And today every business that we do, it doesn't have to be approved by the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], it doesn't have to go through all the red tape, bureaucratic red tape. But today we have an LLC [limited liability corporation], probably the first tribe to have a limited liability company to bring business in. We have a work first protection act that we passed, which strengthens TERO [Tribal Employments Rights Office]. We have more of...there's more businesses coming to the tribe. There's more tribes coming, more businesses coming to the Crow, because there's more stability, continuity. And so that's our constitution from traditional form of government to the one we have today -- 2001. (I saw a sign over there that said stop so I have to stop.)

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