Ian Record: Setting the Focus and Providing the Context: Critical Constitutional Reform Tasks (Presentation Highlight)

Native Nations Institute

In this highlight from the presentation "The Process of Constitutional Reform: The Challenge of Citizen Engagement," NNI's Ian Record lays out two critical overarching tasks that those charged with leading a nation's constitutional reform effort must undertake.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Record, Ian. "Setting the Focus and Providing the Context: Critical Constitutional Reform Tasks (Presentation Highlight)." Tribal Constitutions seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 4, 2013. Presentation highlight.

"So here's just some responsibilities that you want to think about giving, delegating to those commission members. Obviously you need them out there spearheading the citizen engagement effort, soliciting input/feedback from your community members. So all of these things on this page are very important, but I would argue that there's two larger responsibilities that your constitution reform committee folks have. One is, set the focus. The second is, provide context.

What do I mean by that? Set the focus -- and this is something that leaders need to be doing as well. And Anthony [Hill] stole a lot of my thunder on this point so I'll be concise with it, but we've seen a lot of tribes struggle when the focus and the discussion around reform is confined to the current issues of the day, the problems, what's ailing us, versus what are our assets, what are our resources, what are our opportunities, what kind of future are we trying to create? Setting that focus is absolutely critical, because if you stay confined in that issues and problems thing, you're missing out, you have a very narrow focus and you're missing out on the broader picture.

I like to use the analogy of a car and your constitution being your nation-building vehicle. And those of you who are elected leaders or who work in tribal government and you're immersed in the machinery of governance every day, you see the problems, you see them firsthand, and you know what needs fixing, right? So every time that vehicle breaks down and you pull over to the side of the road and you get out and you're all huddled around -- elected leadership and everybody else -- you're huddled around underneath the hood and that's all you're looking at, instead of walking up to the next hill, turning around and taking a look at the whole picture. Taking a look at that vehicle and saying, 'Is this the right vehicle for us? Do we even know how to drive it? Is it even pointed in the right direction? Do we know which direction we want to point it in?' So you need to think about that. That's all about setting the focus. What is the premise, what is the lens through which you're going to engage in this effort?

And the second is, provide the context. We see a lot of tribes struggle when they start with, "˜What's wrong with our constitution?' instead of going back, doing a history on where you've come from. It's that old adage: it's hard to figure out where you're going to go unless you know where you've been. So you need to do your due diligence, and this is where the reform committee can play the lead role. How did we govern ourselves traditionally? I may know that being on the reform committee, 'cause they put me on there because of my knowledge of this, but do the people in the community know that? If not, we need to teach them.

Where did our current constitution come from? Oftentimes we hear people say, 'Oh, yeah, we're an IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] tribe,' as if the person hearing that is supposed to understand fully what that means or they even understand fully what that means. But go back. Do you know? Do you have a working history of how your specific constitution and system of government was formed? Did your own people have a meaningful say in its formulation? For many IRA tribes, often that answer is no.

San Carlos Apaches, I've worked with them for a number of years, I've done a lot of archival research on how their IRA government was formed. They had a heavy contingent of Apaches back at the time that said, 'Self-governance? You're talking about self-governance? We're going to take the ball and run with it.' They actually developed their own constitution. They sent it to Washington. John Collier said, 'No way. You want to regulate marriage and divorce according to Apache custom? I don't think so. We have the Lutheran missionaries that can do that for you.' So you need to go back and look at your history and then, once you document that history, you need to share it with your people, because it will provide them a sense of context by which they can then analyze your current constitution and figure out what they want to change."

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