Miriam Jorgensen: Organizing the Reform Process

Native Nations Institute

NNI Director of Research Miriam Jorgensen shares what she sees as some of the critical keys to Native nations' efforts to develop and implement effective constitutional reform processes. 


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

Resource Type

Jorgensen, Miriam. "Organizing the Reform Process." 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 3, 2011. Presentation.

"I'm going to try to -- like Steve [Cornell] said -- not take a lot of time but I want to accomplish a couple of things today. One of them is to just really help tie together some of the expertise that's in the room -- and as Frank [Pommersheim] did -- sweep together some of the pieces that you've been hearing the last couple of days, or the last day. Feels like a couple of days sometimes, doesn't it? So first off, I just want to say thanks to Frank for the very nice words about my mother. I think all of us know how important family is to us and I just think that was really nice that he honored her. And she's definitely a big reason why I'm involved in what I do. So thank you for that.

In your binder that you got, on tab six is the talk that, in a sense, I prepared, but I' d love it if you just looked at that as resources. I'm going to concentrate on three of the slides in there and the first one is just this. And it's a way of organizing, thinking about the project that all of you are engaged in. One of the things that we were kind of talking about in the hallways and in the lunchroom conversations is how everybody in this room is really at a different point in their process, but this is just one way to think about what the overall process looks like. These are really big, large steps. They're very summary. I think a little bit about what the judge did yesterday at lunch and break it down into, "˜...and then step six and step seven and step eight,' and those things are all embedded in this process. But if you think about it, what many of you at the beginning of the process are engaged in, is just this assessment process of what needs to change.

The next piece is really the exploration of solutions, and that is a huge portion of your process -- who's doing what, what are some things that I can learn from, what are those particular ways we can solve our problems -- then into implementation and sustainability, some of the things Frank was just talking about as well. But I think just having that kind of map in your head is really critical, because it says there is a way through this process, there's a sort of logical step. And sometimes, you're going to be moving backwards a little bit or sometimes I'm moving forward, but there is a process to go through. It's also a circle and I think this really picks up on something that Don Wharton said today. He says...I don't think of the process that Virgil [Edwards] shared with us about Blackfeet. And I know that there are others in the room who may feel like their processes are kind of stalling or slowing. It's not that these things stop, rather that they are very organic processes that have lives of their own and they turn in upon each other. Sometimes we're moving quickly around this circle, sometimes we're moving slowly around this circle, but it is a circle and a moving onward process. And sometimes even when you feel like you're done, maybe there's still some work to do. And that work is around the living the constitution, living the laws that you put together for your Nation that Frank just talked about. So again, I include the slides for reference, but there are just a few things I want to pick up on critically.

One of the things that we think it's really important to do in a constitutional reform process or a fundamental governance reform process is undertake processes of education. I think they actually take place at two different levels. One is the kind of citizen and community-wide education that needs to take place kind of on a constant sort of endemic sort of way. Scott Davis mentioned this a little bit in his remarks from the mic this morning, kind of saying, 'We really just wish citizens knew more about their governments and maybe tribal colleges are one of the ways that that can occur.' Maybe it's through some of the mandates that some of the states have about what education has to occur in state schools. Maybe it's through writing and rewriting curriculum. Maybe it's through community meetings.

And I think that one of the really exciting things that a number of tribes sitting in this room -- and I'm just going to pick on a few -- I'm just going to say that the work that the Oglala Lakota nation has been doing and also the Lac de Flambeau nation have been doing is around those lines of generalized citizen education that really prepares the ground for governmental change. So there are a number of folks from both those nations in the room if you want to talk to them about what they're doing in kind of preparing the ground for change. I think one of the really exciting things that Oglala Lakota nation has done recently for instance is draw together a lot of the kind of disparate groups within the Nation who sometimes feel like they might not have much in common -- they adhere to the IRA [Indian Reorganization] government or they adhere to the treaty government or they haven't been involved in government at all because they don't think it works -- and they've really brought those groups together for a conversation where they can feel common ground.

One of the things that a lot has come out of those conversations -- and again, also at Lac de Flambeau -- is these next two slides about, what it is you can hold conversations about? What are people's rights and responsibilities as citizens? What kinds of things do they need to know about their government? What's the substance of those conversations about how the tribe is currently governed and how it might wish to be governed? What are people's hopes for that? And these two slides just provide some lists of what those conversations might look like. So that's the first level of education in a process of change. I think the second level is a really, really critical piece too and it's actually after you get started. It's that thing that says, you know, we might have a convention or a commission for change, a committee that's charged with exploring those options, but that commission and committee also has to be engaged in vital outreach. And I think a real great resource in the room for some of that is the work that the Osage Nation did. Hepsi touched on it a bit yesterday, former Chief Jim Gray may touch on it a little bit later today; just that process of keeping citizens informed about what the process is and what the things being considered on the table are. Lac de Flambeau is also doing a lot of interesting work in that area of running citizens through mock examples of what constitutional change might look like.

One of the things I'm trying to do here is really encourage you to look around the room and as -- now I'm going to forget who mentioned this this morning -- of really using each other as resources. Maybe this was Richard Jack -- he put that on the table perhaps of -- how can we use each other as resources in this process? If you're in the room today, you're already committed to these ideas, right? You're committed to moving forward in terms of fundamental governance reform of some sort and so you're peer resources to each other. If nothing else, you're cheering squads for one another or support systems of saying, "˜Yeah, we got stuck there, too.' But you're also critically information resources. So I'm trying to point out some of the things that folks are doing so you have that notion of what some of those information resources are. So education critically is one of the pieces of the process we want you to pay attention to.

Another piece I want to talk about -- I'm just going to skip through this quickly -- is to really think about who's going to manage the reform process. We haven't talked about that much but there are a number of options out there of who's going to manage the reform process. One of the things that the evidence, the research evidence seems to suggest, is that it's really hard for the reform process to be managed by a sitting council. I think Hepsi Barnett talked about this a little bit yesterday, but it's really hard to get the people who in a sense may lose their jobs from the governmental change to manage the process. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be informed; you've got to keep them informed and you've got to educate them and make sure that they're knowing how you're moving forward as well. But oftentimes, it makes a lot more sense for the people to managing that reform process to be, have some independence. Now how have different nations done that?

Todd Hembree, who's been generous enough to give us his time this last couple of days, actually was engaged with the Cherokee Constitutional Convention back in 1999. That's a really interesting model that brought together a number of citizen delegates to just really work through the conversation. Blackfeet, that Virgil shared with us yesterday, is another model of citizens, in really large groups of citizens, coming together sometimes almost spontaneously to write portions of the constitution but then was followed up by the technical writing and review. The Osage experience was a constitutional committee, in a sense, that did a lot of the heavy lifting work. And so you can see there are a lot of different models out there. They're typically representative in some way, they're independent in some way, and they're able to really carry the ball to move the process forward. That's just the next slide of just a little information about what their tasks are. So you can see if you get engaged in this process of being on the committee or the convention, it's a lot of work, it's an important set of jobs.

One of the things the convention has to do -- you can see from that list -- is really be the ones to sort through options. And so it's really making sure that that committee or group of people have some access to those options. So I wanted to point out a couple of other groups in the room who might be doing some interesting work. Already, our representatives from White Earth have shared a little bit I know internally with some of their work on citizenship and membership, which is a really critical piece that a lot of people get hung up on and work with. Virgil and others have talked about some of the issues around economics and business enterprises. I think Osage has done some really important work in that area, too. So really thinking hard about these resources in the room, going to other tribes and saying, 'How did you think through this issue?'

Also seeking out expert advice. Maybe it's not necessarily another tribe that you're going to, but you're finding some expert who's worked through these issues and again there are those kind of people in the room as well. Tracy Fisher, who's way down here on the end, and again I'll point to Todd -- these are two folks who have done a lot of work parsing through what needs to go in a constitution versus what needs to be the stuff that follows the constitution like on the legislative and statutory front. Cheryl Carey back here has done some work with her nation in thinking through, 'What can you do in terms of administrative organization of your Nation that in a sense isn't even the constitutional work?' The constitution has to carry certain kinds of water and other kinds of water needs to be carried by the organization of government itself. So again, there are experts, peer experts and professional experts in the room who would be the kinds of people who could provide advice and information to your committee on issues of these sorts.

I wanted to just say a little bit about leadership education, because that's really one of the pieces that this committee has to do as well. I think that that also gets us down into thinking about our model again. When you're moving to this implementation and putting identified solutions to work, that's a little bit about what Frank was saying about believing in the constitution, of really making that constitution work by living it and implementing it. And here's a statement from one of our speakers yesterday -- I think former Chairman [Frank] Ettawageshik is not with us today -- sorry, this is what I get for skipping through the slide show; can't find the things I want -- I'm going to give you a minute to read this. This was actually a quote that showed up in not even the tribal newspaper, but in sort of the county press. This was a statement that former Chairman Ettawageshik made after losing the election. Now what to me strikes me about this is that this isn't the, "˜Well, you know, I guess the people voted for whoever they wanted or whatever.' It's not this kind of bitter statement of, "˜I lost.' It's a very generous statement that says, "˜I'm going to work with the next administration. I helped put this government together.' Remember Frank saying he'd worked for over 20 years through the reaffirmation process, through the process of showing up at the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] -- one of the times I've heard him tell a story when he was working with getting the recognition is -- the BIA wouldn't even look at their papers. And so they literally, he or another lobbyist, would go into the BIA tribal governance recognition offices every Monday and move their statement to the top of the pile so BIA would get to it. Six years they went in and moved it to the top of the pile every Monday kind of thing. So he was in the trenches for this for 20 years, and yet this is the kind of statement he can make at the end. And that's because he is living the constitution. He's implementing that constitution through his life, through his beliefs, through his work. And as that constitutional committee or convention or group of people is reaching out to leadership, what they want to be reaching out around is to say, "˜You know what, legacy leaders are what this nation needs. Legacy leaders who can make statements like this, who 50 years down the road, we're going to point to as a founding mother or founding father of our contemporary nation.'

We work with a nation in the southwest and in fact it's one of the nations I worked for, for over 25 years. Well, when I first began to work with that nation, everybody pointed to them and said, "˜Oh, my god, what a visionary leader they have.' That leader failed, however, to put into place fundamental governing institutions that would protect the nation against bad future leadership. They didn't put into place institutions that could prevent leaders or councils from kind of co-opting the government to its own purposes. And over the course of the last decade that nation has actually been co-opted to purposes that are not necessarily in the interest of the population. And so oddly enough where as when I entered the work in this field 25 years ago and people said, "˜Oh, look to that nation, great visionary leader,' no one is looking now at that person and saying, "˜A founding father,' because he failed to put into place those institutions. Instead we look to that nation and say, "˜Hmm, a missed opportunity,' A missed opportunity to leave a legacy of change and new direction for that nation. And in a sense that's kind of what you see up here with Frank is I think people are going to look down the road at him 50 years from now and say, "˜That was a founding father.' And we see this in other nations too. The Confederate Salish and Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation -- that Steve talked about a little bit yesterday -- they went through some really fundamental constitutional change in the '60s and again in the '70s. And people really do look back on them and say, "˜Our founding mothers and our founding fathers did that hard work. They gave up the opportunity for short-term personal gain but they live forever in our memories.' And that's a really important part of the outreach to tribal leadership and sitting council, political elected leadership in this period of change.

I think the last thing I want to say is to pick up on something that Judge [John] Tunheim said almost in passing yesterday. At the beginning of his statements, he started off really kind of where Frank did of saying, "˜You've got to review the law and the documents that are in place.' And I would add to what Frank said, it's not just reviewing the historical treaties but reviewing contemporary treaties as well. Does your constitution abide with the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? Does it pick up on some of those things -- that Tunheim was mentioning yesterday too -- around the international statements on the political, civil and human rights accords that the UN [United Nations] have adopted? Because those are valuable pieces for Indigenous nations as well, which are international nations as well as being nations within the United States' structure. I would say that in that statement he also talked about reviewing the culture and the history of the nation to see if there's anything in the culture and the history of the nation that you really have to take account of in the constitution -- and here was the critical piece that he just slid past -- that's going to help you implement the rule of law. And then he almost said, "˜Oh, that's more of an international nation issue,' but I sat back and thought, "˜No, that's an issue for every single Indigenous nation in this room.' Are there things in your tribe's history and culture that you can rely on in writing the constitution or in talking about the constitution to people that are going to help it get to this kind of implementation phase, that are going to help people believe in it, adopt it and live it because it reflects who they are? Are there ways that you can organize government that reflect who that nation is that then lead to the implementation of the rule of law in a lived way? And I think really good constitutional reform does that. And it's also the reason why we see all those innovations that Steve talked about yesterday and that David Wilkins talked about yesterday as well. Think about how innovative Native nations have been in the structure of their constitutions, in the structure of their legislation, in the structure of their administrative bodies. That innovation, in many cases the stuff that really works, is because tribes have thought hard about what it is that exists within their histories and their cultures and their ways of doing business that are going to lead to people really believing in their institutions of government and having them really, really work.

That's really all I have to say. If there are questions that you have arising from kind of just paging through those slides, I'm really happy to take any of those questions. And I just want to end it with I know you're all in different places. Some are at the very beginning, some are approaching the end with documents that just need to be affirmed by their citizenry and maybe affirmed into some sort of more formal way before implementation. Some of you are really in the process of saying, it may be...well, the Sioux is a good example of this. They had some constitutional changes about two years ago and they're in the process of just trying to live them now. And so they're back to that sustainability circle -- number four over there. So people are at all different places and I just want to encourage you and congratulate you and encourage you to rely on each other and on the folks in this room as resources in your progress forward. Thanks, and I think we're ready to hear some more stories from the field from Pat [Riggs] and from Jim [Gray]."