Frank Ettawageshik and Gwen Phillips: Reforming Our Nations' Constitutions: What We Did and Why (Q&A)

Native Nations Institute

Frank Ettawageshik, former Chairman of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, and Gwen Phillips, Ktunaxa Nation Director of Corporate Services and Governance Transition, field questions from the audience about their presentations detailing how their nations either reformed or are in the process of reforming their constitutions.

Resource Type

Ettawageshik, Frank. "Reforming the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Constitution: What We Did and Why." Tribal Constitutions seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. May 1, 2012. Presentation.

Phillips, Gwen. "Reforming the Ktunaxa Nation Constitution: What We're Doing and Why." Tribal Constitutions seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. May 1, 2012. Presentation.

Q: "I have a very strong sense that there's a lot of communication, there's a lot of education of the citizenry that needs to take place still, that these concepts are difficult things to wrap our minds around when we've got such a strong recent history at least of occupation and of having been diminished in our own minds as well. Do you have, both of you I guess, things to share about any efforts that have gone on among the citizens to try to really elucidate to them what is meant by some of the concepts that you've shared with us today?"

Phillips: "All of our processes, and the reason it took so long, involved the citizens. So our treaty process, the negotiating process -- we have citizens' meetings in plenary. I don't know if you've ever been to one of those -- anybody from the NNI team -- but we'll have 200 or 300 citizens in the room when we're talking about values, for example, and the reason it took two years was because it went through the citizens' processes and came back to us from their voices. So everything we've done has involved the citizens from the ground up. It's been not so comfortable for the government, because it takes a long time, and they want things done in an expeditious way, and they want to say "˜Who's responsible?' And when we say, "˜Well, we all did it,' they don't like those things. They want one Indian at the table and that kind of a thing. So it's really key. And the other thing was years ago we made a real conscious effort to use some philosophy that was traditional but it was contemporized. Appreciative inquiry is one of those philosophies. Appreciative inquiry is basically a way of going into anything and looking for the good in it. We all can go in and look at...everything's got two sides to it. So when we consciously used those terms and taught people about it, stopped using the foreign terms that they gave us like "˜band member,' started to use the term "˜citizen' -- the words we use, and making sure the reflection back to people is there. So it has to be a slow and iterative process that involves the people because a good leader follows their people, but they stay one step ahead."

Ettawageshik: "One of the things that our community has done is consistent programs of community education -- as has been mentioned -- where we bring in speakers from other places but we also have, we had a process of recording in video and in audio all of our elders, and we worked with the elders and the youth and we have programs of the programs that we did, the court did a cultural immersion program where they would have our staff and have community members and have people gather and try to get all on the same page relative to our heritage. And many of our people -- and it's true in so many tribes -- we've had problems where there were...with modernization, with the TV, with video games, and all these things, that there's a lot of pressures on our young people and our young families that cause them to be separated a lot from what normally has been a lot of traditions. And so what we did with that is we started a series of videos and we made a video we call Journey to Sovereignty that was about the process of going through the reaffirmation legislation that we did, and we made it a length that it could be broadcast on public broadcasting, and we then -- after we got it done, we made a copy and sent one to every single tribal citizen, whether they were a month old or 80. And so some families got 12 of them. But we made this so that...we wanted people to share that common experience, because when we all lived right next door to each other all the time and we were right with neighbors and very close, we had more common experiences, and as we've sort of drifted apart -- and sometimes in drifting apart, we may even be living next to each other, but we're so involved in the pressures of modern communication and technology...I had an experience just yesterday with someone where we were one room apart but we were emailing each other instead of getting up and walking and talking. Well, with those kind of pressures, we need to find ways to continue the passing on of our traditions and our culture, so the video productions that we did have been wonderful. We've done a series of those and sent them to every single tribal citizen. We also have other types of meetings where we've been dealing with our reservation lands for instance. There's a committee of the tribal council that has met that is in charge of dealing with issues relative to land and reservation, and they've held a series of meetings both for youth and for the adult members of our community, where we would gather and one of them was a powerful experience where everybody -- instead of pulling out maps and showing pictures of all of the things -- everybody was supposed to get up and just say where their favorite place on the reservation was and why. And after you had 60 people in a room all do that, it really builds those positive experiences -- as you're talking about -- where you're building on the positive things not just trying absence of negatives. And to me, those are the kind of things that we've done. So maybe, hopefully this addresses the direction that you were headed with your question there."

Phillips: "Another thing we're doing is we're actually defining our vision statement. It's like a lot of people stop there. They put it in front of them and it's pretty words and then they go about their business. But I'm going, "˜No, no, no, no, no.' If that's the nation's vision, then we have to know that we've, we can measure it, that we've achieved it, because we're saying it's 150, 200 years to get back to that place. So we've taken the concept of strong healthy citizens, for example, and we're defining it in terms of the people. So we have community-based meetings. I just say, "˜What do you think a strong Ktunaxa is?' and "˜ba, da, da, da, da, da' -- a whole bunch of stuff comes out. You keep asking that, trends start to evolve. You start to define what basically we see as being a strong healthy Ktunaxa citizen. When we've defined that in measurable terms, it's coming out to things like, connected to your cultural heritage, uses the gifts and talents that, the inherent gifts and talents, given to you. So the concepts aren't saying reading, writing, arithmetic at all, and those things are put on to the last, last thing that we're going to learn, basically. So when we've defined what our vision statement is, then that means that we actually invest in processes, and I'm not going to use the term programs, "˜cause we're almost to the point now where we're choking on those words, because the government really likes programs and they work really hard to get strong programs. We're saying, "˜We don't want strong programs, we want strong people that don't need programs.' So that means we have to go about defining it and investing in the manipulatives, in the variables that make up that whole human. So when I say education reform, it is key, because that's where we learn to be nice to each other, we learn how to share, we learn generosity, we learn independence, we learn...the things we learn within that place. When I was a little girl in grade one and two, and this is no lie, my mother gave me the report cards. I missed over 70 days of school in grade one and two. I could already basically read, I could basically do math and they were trying to tell me in school to sit down and shut up. Now you've got 20 minutes of Gwen, can you think about sit down, shut up, Gwen? No. Grade three, the teacher clicked on me. I never missed a day that year, even when I was sick I was there, because she let me be socially responsible. She let me help and use the skills and gifts I had within the community class and that was a whole changing life experience for me. Whew, I finally found a place. So we have to create space and environment that is the right place for our people to be to do the things that they need to do that come natural, and that where they don't come natural that we can get them to be to that point of it taking over again so it does come natural again, because yeah, we've been forced to fight really, and that's not a good place and it's not our nature, it's not our nature place. And I've got a comprehensive database to measure those things, too."

Q: "I wanted to ask if you can talk very briefly, both of you, about how you were able to sustain this over a period of time because this is great, the momentum I'm sure was great at the beginning, and there could have been changes in leadership, you have...just time in itself. Can you talk a little bit about how you were able to do it over time?"

Phillips: "Well, first if you don't let the leaders lead it, you have the people lead it, then it don't matter when they change. So that's one of the key things is to have a champion that's not an elected person and every time I get nominated I say no. I have things I was born to do, thank you. So when you have that natural gift in your community, sustain it and don't let it be part of the political will that blows all over the place."

Ettawageshik: "In our case, the process, we have sort of an unusual situation in that our document that was governing, that was our governing document at the time that the reaffirmation bill passed in 1994, was recognized as an interim document and so there was a requirement under that law that we have an election for a constitution and that the process was driven through community meetings and we would take the draft and work on it between the meetings. We'd mail it out to everybody and then we'd ask for input, either written input or to come to a meeting and we'd have both for every single draft that we did. We did a series of these over time and we consistently had people coming all the way through the process. It took us a lot longer to get to the election than we wanted, but the initial law, the reaffirmation act, was...required a secretarial election, one that was run by the Secretary of the Interior. And many constitutions have a provision that if they're going to be amended that they require a Secretarial election. Well, our constitution has a provision that says that it doesn't require a Secretarial election. So what happened is the first one that we voted when this constitution was adopted, it had to be run by the Secretary of the Interior. But the constitution as it now stands is that if it's going to be amended, it would be amended by the people without going through the Secretary of the Interior. So we were able to put those points in there and the idea that we wanted to exercise our inherent sovereignty, exercise our rights as a sovereign tribal government, that really was an incentive for the community to continue working on this process to get to the point where we would have the document that we have today. And is it perfect? No, there's things in there that I sure wish that we had done a little differently, and so if you're thinking of looking at that and copying language verbatim, you want to be really careful, because you might get the thing that we really wish that we'd done differently. But on the other hand, this thing works well and it has done -- it's a reflection of our community because we are like the Citizen Potawatomi, who have citizens all over. Every one of our citizens votes, so we have voting tribal citizens in Germany and all over the world but predominately in Michigan and mostly within our traditional homeland. There is continued thought about it constantly and of course our court is -- it's a fairly new document as constitutions go, so we have yet to have some of the major court cases that are going to resolve the gray areas within it. Some of those disputes are still sort of working their way up and we are going to have them in the future, and what our hope is is that we've constructed a system that will give our citizens access to the courts in such a way that when there are constitutional issues and there are questions that arise, we'll be able to answer them. And I tell people that today we're dealing with our problems largely through petitions and signatures and elections and discussions but we still are, we're not a nation of political parties. We're a nation of families and so that immediately changes the way things work and that's a reflection, our constitution really functions well within that structure."

Q: "I want to thank you very, very much for those wonderful presentations. My name is Robert Hershey. I'm a Professor of Law in American Indian Studies here at the University of Arizona, part of our Indigenous Peoples' Law and Policy program. I've worked with a number of tribes on constitutional reformations, amendments including Pascua Yaqui tribe for over two years. Some of the tribes have been trying to amend their constitutions for more than 35, 40 years, and it's an ongoing process. You brought up the crisis reaction. I love the tennis ball machine analogy. Also, the remark about trust and the level of trust. So what are the stoppers? Tribes that have membership requirement, blood quantum in their constitutions, how do you defer those issues, how do you go ahead, and what are the things that you come across that prevent things from going on that you might find that are common? I know in Canada you have Bill C31-2 and that whole question of status, but here with North American tribes, how do you go ahead and proceed to take care of those things that are extremely meaningful, necessary, like the removal of Secretarial approval language from constitutions, and still defer those really trigger issues that prevent things from moving on?"

Ettawageshik: "I think a lot of this has to do with -- we heard this morning about how as Indigenous peoples we have often taken on the role of our oppressor. I once saw a slide at a presentation at a conference I was at that says, "˜Why do we need an oppressor when we do his work so well?' And we have...when we were negotiating this treaty for the United League of Indigenous Nations, we had a whole room full of people that had been working for several years and we were culminating the discussion, getting ready to finalize it, and we were talking about who was going to be able to sign it that day, cause we had 11 nations that signed on but one of the nations said, "˜Well, gee, you know, I don't know, will they let us sign this?' The question is, who is the "˜they'? And the point is that, all too often, we get so caught up in the system that we've been in that's part of the oppression, that we start defining ourselves with those terms and it's really important that we learn to define ourselves in our own terms. And so when you ask, "˜What do we do?' Part of it is community education, because the...the terms in terms of the blood quantum you mentioned, there were some places where they wanted everyone to be half blood of our own tribe, and then we live in an area where there's so many tribes around us that if we're going to marry somebody we're not related to, we're going to be marrying from one of them and vice versa, so very quickly we could end up with someone who wouldn't have enough minimum blood quantum to be a member of any of the tribes. I heard of one person when we were testifying in Congress that was a full blood who had, did not have enough blood to be a member of any of the tribes that he had blood from yet he was full-blood Native American. And so how do we deal with those kind of things? You've got to be careful as you set your citizenship requirements as to, that you don't basically legislate yourself out of existence. So how do you deal with that? I don't have an answer for it, because every single tribe is going to do that differently. But the point is, it has to be thought through, and it can't just be the emotional thing that's going on right now and it can' have to be thinking of defining yourself through your own terms, not using the terms of the, not using in our case the U.S. or the Canadian government's definitions of us, "˜cause if we accept those, if we accept that terminology, we've lost the battle before we start."

Phillips: "I think for us it was key, "˜cause we have triggers. One of the biggest problems that we had in all of these processes was families that fight, was a brother that doesn't talk to a brother or a cousin. I had a cousin come to me one day as a girl who was probably about 25 or so. She's actually a cousin below me so her mom would be my cousin and she said to me, "˜Gwen, how come we're allowed to play as kids and as soon as we become like a certain age we're not supposed to talk to each other anymore?' It's because your grandpa did something to his auntie, whatever, and nobody wants to talk about it. Well, people, we've got to talk about it, "˜cause if we don't, we're just going to just allow it to keep going. It's the elephant in the room and we all talk about the stink, right, the ugly stink. We've got to clear that stink out of the room. How do we do that? By not allowing it to come into the room in the first place. So, it's been a challenge because we have broken, hurt and healing families everywhere. So when we tried to look at the issue of fetal alcohol syndrome for example, now it would have been one thing for the chief and council to lay down a policy around that, but no, what I established was called the Community Healing and Intervention Program. So we understood we had to go through a process of healing, healing, healing. Believe me, constitutional reform is healing, people. That's why I was talking about process being more important sometimes than product, because depending upon how you go about the process, processes, because ours took many forms in order to actually achieve, to come to the same place. We had to actually put something that we could all see ourselves in, undefined at that point. So we also, that vision statement, I cannot say how important it was to us because we all owned that because we all had a piece in it, every single...whether it was a kid in a school, the grandmothers, everybody had a shot at that statement. When we look at that piece of our vision statement that says, "˜celebrating who we are and our history and our ancestral homelands,' that was a key piece for us. That was where we could identify all of these darned elephants that marched in the room and heck it wasn't ours, elephants don't even come from here. So that was a process of actually going through our history to come to the places where, oh, gosh, that's where we got that ugly piece. Okay, well, let's get over that, let's heal through that. So I don't know how many of you know but our residential school, boarding school, is now a four-and-a-half star casino resort gold course. Chief Sophie Pierre may have spoken about that in her previous visits here. Transformation. The elders said, "˜That place took our culture away, it needs to bring it back.' If we would have just knocked the building over like many people have done, we would all be still packing that hurt in our hearts. It wasn't the building that hurt us, it was a process. So we had to go undo the processes in order to then redo something. So that reconstitution thing again, it's like, okay, let's squeeze the orange out but just keep the orange juice. The other thing was values, in that defining of your values. That brings you together in a healthy way, because it doesn't say -- when we say we value family, family means family, people, it doesn't mean whether you're a C31 or whether you're a section 12-1B or you fit in which category of Indian Affairs. No, no, no, no, no. And so, we, the Nike nation -- I say Nike nation, "˜cause we just do it -- we look at law and policy, if it makes sense, okay, fine. But more importantly we look at what we're trying to achieve and we just do it. So for example, I broke the master tuition agreements, which was a federal provincial agreement that used to send money from Ottawa to the provinces for all our kids that were in school. Policy reads, for every status Indian student normally residing on reserve and attending a public school as of September 30th -- so I understood the policy. So guess what I did in August. I held our kids in community all of September. In October we sent them to the public school, and in October we got a big thing from the public school superintendent going, "˜You can't do that, you owe us a bunch of money.' We said, "˜No, we don't, the policy says for every da, da, da,' because we used to be subject to the reverse. They held our kids with Velcro to their seats until September 30th and then they pushed them all out the door on October 1st. Suspension after suspension. "˜We don't care where you are, "˜cause the money's been paid,' and it was a whole different thing when we held the money or when no money was paid. Before they didn't want to talk to us and then all of a sudden they wanted to talk to us. The wrong reason, but at least we're at the table talking. So we've done this time and time again where we see what we want to do, we see what's going on there, we say, "˜Okay, this is what we have to do to get there.' Sometimes it's breach policy, sometimes it's change policy, sometimes it's just do it and you don't tell anybody you did it. And then they come back and say, "˜Gee, that worked, we'll take ownership over that under this new program.' It's kind of strange. But it's really I think getting the picture in your mind of what you're trying to achieve as a collective, and that's where you're going to gain the energy, that's where you'll gain the strength. That vision statement, every Ktunaxa citizen knows we have one. Now they might not be able to say it, articulate it quite in its beautiful form, but they know we have it and they know what it speaks about. And as we more comprehensively define it, then we're going to actually see it evident right amongst us cause we're measuring it. One of the things when we were developing our indicators of our wellbeing, one of the elders said, "˜We need to have a sparkle in our kids' eyes. They need a sparkle in their eyes again.' I thought, "˜Ooh, I better get a calibration instrument. How sparkly are your eyes today?' What they were meaning was excitement, they wanted to see that, that passion for life again. So it's a process really, is what it is."

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