Blackfeet Nation

Ahwahsiin (The Land/Where We Get Our Food)

Author
Year

Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and food systems are fast disappearing but are of the utmost importance, not only for sustaining Indigenous Peoples but also for providing alternative paradigms for coping with diverse ecosystems in a changing global environment. This research examines Blackfeet tribal food systems and is meant to be not only an oral history of Blackfeet foods but a guide on how to use them.

Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Beck, Abaki. Ahwahsiin (The Land/Where We Get Our Food): Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Contemporary Food Sovereignty on the Blackfeet Reservation. Blackfeet Reservation, Montana: Saokio Heritage, 2017. Accessed February 28, 2023.

Blackfeet Nation Constitution

Year

The Blackfeet Nation is located in Northern Montana at the Canadian border. It has a population of 16,500 people and the tribe was artificially divided by the U.S.-Canadian border. The constitution was enacted in 1934 and amended in 1962, 1978, and 1998.

PREAMBLE: We, the adult members of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe, pursuant to the authority vested in us by Section 16 of the Act of June 18, 1934 (48 Statutes at large, page 986), and amendments thereto, do hereby organize for the common welfare of said tribe and the members thereof, and for such purpose do adopt the following constitution for the government, protection, and common welfare of the said tribe and members thereof...

Native Nations
Citation

Blackfeet Nation. 1935. "Constitution and By-Laws For the Blackfeet Tribe Of The Blackfeet Indian Reservation of Montana." Browning, MT.

Blackfeet Nation's Siyeh Corporation

Year

For years the Blackfeet Nation struggled to create sustainable tribal enterprises that could produce revenue for the nation and meet the needs of its citizens for jobs and services. Many of these efforts did not succeed because of conflicts within the tribal government. In 1999, the Nation tried a new strategy. It established a federally chartered, tribally owned corporation designed to manage businesses on behalf of the government and to protect those businesses from inappropriate political influence. Named after a great Blackfeet warrior known for his fearless leadership, the Siyeh Corporation today runs multiple businesses including a cable television company, a heritage center, an art gallery, and two casinos. The Corporation promotes economic growth and stability while preserving Blackfeet cultural and traditional values. Siyeh is changing the economic landscape of an impoverished reservation, increasing the Blackfeet Nation’s revenues and enhancing Blackfeet self-government.

Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

"Siyeh Corporation". Honoring Nations: 2005 Honoree. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2006. Report.

Permissions

This Honoring Nations report is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

Honoring Nations: Loren Bird Rattler, Ray Montoya and Jay St. Goddard: Siyeh Corporation

Producer
Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development
Year

Representatives from the Siyeh Corporation present an overview of the corporation's establishment and growth to the Honoring Nations Board of Governors in conjunction with the 2005 Honoring Nations Awards.

Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Bird Rattler, Loren, Ray Montoya, and Jay St. Goddard. "Siyeh Corporation." Honoring Nations Awards event. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Tulsa, Oklahoma. November 1, 2005. Presentation.

Loren Bird Rattler:

"Thank you, Amy. As she mentioned, my name is Loren Bird Rattler. I'm the Manager of the Blackfeet Heritage Center and Art Gallery, a business line of the parent company Siyeh Corporation. I would like to first thank the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development for allowing us a forum to certainly showcase our successes that we've had at Siyeh Corporation back in Blackfeet Country.

With that said, I'd like to begin with the question, 'Why was Siyeh Corporation created?' First, a legal enterprise was needed to develop and operate business opportunities for the Blackfeet Tribe. This enterprise needed to be a for-profit entity that would provide an alternative source of revenue for the Blackfeet Tribe as well as create a source of revenue...I'm sorry, a source of revenue for the Blackfeet Tribe as well as create additional jobs for the local economy. But more specifically, it was to create an enterprise whose day-to-day business decisions and practices were separate from tribal politics and decision making. This process happened in four phases: analysis and bench marketing, petitioning the Secretary of Interior, the approval of that petition, and finally ratification by the Blackfeet Tribe.

In 1997 the Blackfeet Planning Department began to script plans for a for-profit company that would be semi-autonomous from tribal political influence and decision-making. The Planning Department embraced a new paradigm of thinking that would change the dynamic of how the Blackfeet Tribe would and could create and sustain profitable businesses. The first task was an analysis on the approach to economic development on the Blackfeet Reservation. During this analysis, the Planning Department began to benchmark other tribes to find out what types of infrastructure they were using in tribal enterprises and businesses. From this analysis, a new comprehensive economic development strategy was put in place to create a for-profit corporation. Many of the principles were taken directly from the concepts of 'Reloading the Dice, Improving Economic Development on American Indian Reservations,' which was found in the publication American Indian Economic Development from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

In early 1999 the Planning Department drafted the corporate charter for Siyeh Corporation under the framework of Section 17 of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Upon completion of the draft, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council passed resolution number 10899 and shortly thereafter petitioned the Secretary of Interior. Upon approval of the petition by the Deputy Commissioner of Indian Affairs on July 8th, 1999, the proposal was sent back to the Blackfeet Tribe for ratification. During this time, a new council had been elected and inaugurated and a referendum was passed changing the structure of terms for the council from two-year terms to staggered four-year terms. Of course this created a new problem for Siyeh. We had to re-lobby a new council, that some of them serving two years, some of them serving four years in 2000. After this lobbying effort was launched, we were able to convince the Chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and therefore get the rest of the council on board. After that happened, of course the charter was ratified on January 3rd, 2001. Because of the language of Section 17 of the Indian Reorganization Act, once ratified by the tribe, it requires an act of Congress to dissolve, further limiting potential influence or potential political influence.

From the drafting of the charter to present day, Siyeh Corporation has and will continue to have struggles. In the beginning, it was very difficult getting local businessmen to serve on the board of directors simply because of the mistrust toward tribal enterprises following a number of failed business ventures. The tribal government and to a greater extent the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council's role is continually being defined and redefined with every incoming council. In the very beginning of course, there was problems with a lack of funding to get the corporation off the ground. The struggle with public perception and the old political philosophy that the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council should have the final say on all matters coupled with Siyeh Corporation's approach to problem solving presents a public relations challenge that Siyeh Corporation continues to address and remedy today.

Siyeh Corporation has five successful business lines. In 1999, the Blackfeet Tribe acquired Starling Cable Company, which was in jeopardy of losing programming. The company has increased subscriptions and offers a public access channel for community programming. In April 2000, under the threat of closure from the National Indian Gaming Commission, Siyeh inherited the Glacier Peaks Casino in Browning. Glacier Peaks Casino now operates seven days a week with exceptional revenue. Kimmie Water was created in late 2000 to deliver five-gallon water jugs to the community due to the poor quality of water with the present water system that exists on the reservation. And in 2002, Discovery Lodge Casino was created to tap into the eastern reservation gaming market. And finally, in mid-2002 with the acquisition of the inventory from the Northern Plains Arts Cooperative, Siyeh Corporation created the Blackfeet Heritage Center and Art Gallery. The center provides an outlet for local artists, artisans, and crafts people to market their work as well as advocate through programming Blackfeet cultural and traditional preservation.

Currently, there are four future projects that are being developed under Siyeh Corporation. A grocery store has surpassed its planning stage and now has a site as well as a distributor identified. The design for the store has been completed. An expansion to the Glacier Peaks Casino is underway. Construction began on a new 30,000-square-foot facility that will house 300-plus class two gaming machines, a 250-seat Bingo hall and a restaurant, lounge and gift shop. Plans have just got underway for a wireless internet business that will bring wireless internet service to rural residents of the Blackfeet Reservation. A feasibility study and business plan are now underway. Siyeh Corporation has completed an SBA 80 application that will aid in marketing Kimmie Water and integrated information technology services and solutions. It may also help with future federal contracting.

Siyeh Corporation has been instrumental in the development of the local economy. In 2004, Siyeh's five business lines paid out over one million dollars in payroll and disbursed $963,173 in dividends to corporate shareholders, the Blackfeet Tribe. Siyeh assets in the year 2000 were around $300,000 compared to nearly $800,000 today. These assets include real property, equipment, vehicles and inventory. Vicariously through its business lines, Siyeh Corporation aids in community development. By providing bottled water to community members, elders and diabetics, Kimmie Water provides a necessary resource that was lacking before. Starling Cable Television, through its community access channel number 37, provides local programming, including Blackfeet Tribal Business Council meetings, public forums, high school sports, and Blackfeet cultural and educational programming. Siyeh also helps with the cultural preservation by purchasing, marketing and exposing Blackfeet artists, artisans and crafts peoples' work. This practice in turn will allow the Blackfeet Heritage Center and Art Gallery to conduct educational workshops on traditional artistic practices. This venue, which includes Blackfeet culture and history teaches both non-Natives as well as our own youth about ourselves.

Siyeh Corporation was named after the Blackfeet warrior Siyeh or Mad Wolf. The spirit of Siyeh in the telling of tribal elders embodies independent thinking, shouldering responsibility for the work that has to be done, and taking bold action. Because of this inspiration, Siyeh Corporation will continue in its efforts to span strategically while protecting the environment, culture and tradition and will continue to be fearless, independent and true, as their motto states."

Alfreda Mitre:

"Congratulations. I had formulated three questions and during your presentation you answered all three of them, so I'll just take this time and say thank you for a wonderful presentation and I'll let the others if they have any questions to go ahead and do so."

Loren Bird Rattler:

"Thank you."

Elsie Meeks:

"So I would imagine that this was fairly controversial in incorporating a Section 17 corporation."

Loren Bird Rattler:

"Yes, it was."

Elsie Meeks:

"Well, that's an issue that I think a lot of tribes would struggle with. I guess if you could talk a little bit more about the reason that you decided to do that, because I know that that must have been a hard decision for you all to make but there must have been a good reason why you did it, and I'd just like you to expand on that a little bit because I think there's some good lessons here."

Loren Bird Rattler:

"Certainly and I'll defer that question to the economic development coordinator Ray Montoya."

Ray Montoya:

"Okay, I'll try to shed a little light on that question. One of the reasons we went with a federally chartered corporation was because in the past and up to that point in time most of the businesses were under the auspices of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council directly under tribal government and unfortunately under that structure the Blackfeet Tribe hasn't had one successful business as a tribal-owned business directly under the tribal government. And so we saw this as a way of changing that lack of success and then allowing a business to grow as it should without the lack of governmental interference."

Brian C. McK. Henderson:

"I would like to ask a follow-up question. You've basically created what in effect is a tribal holding company with a variety of different businesses underneath this one structure and if you could project out into the future and given the challenges that the tribe actually has in economic development and getting businesses going. Do you see the structure on the...under the Section 17 format helping you in the future or do you see it at some point something that you may want to actually change?"

Jay St. Goddard:

"Speaking on behalf of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and the experience I've had as a previous board member on the Siyeh Corporation, it is a model and we expand on it and we want to keep it because it does help us for future businesses and that's one of the main reasons it was put into place. And from past experience and being a leader on the council and knowing what goes on in the political realm and views you get from your membership, I feel it's important it stays in place because it does help our economic future, because changeover in Indian Country as everyone knows happens so regularly and each time there's a change, although we're elected officials, some of them come in thinking they know every answer to economic development or there's that certain money savior out there that's going to come in and save the tribe but that doesn't happen. And with this charter being in place, I think it helps the corporation sustain its ability to prove to the community -- slowly in some ways but fast in other ways -- that this is what we needed in place for a long time, to help us be a successful tribe and business-minded people we have. We have a lot of management people under this corporation that are helping us move these projects along. But it will definitely be a future need and as a tribal leader I hope this would stay in place and it's not taken away, it stays out of the realm of politics. I'm one of the tribal leaders that fight for this corporation every day and help the other tribal leaders understand that this is needed, it's not to be tossed around every time it's brought up to vote it down again. I use that because it's...the charter under the government or wherever it's...however it was created was a great idea. It just makes it harder for a simple motion or resolution for a new council to come in and dissolve this company. That's what'll keep it successful."

Joseph P. Kalt: The Practical Issues of Business Development - Some Things to Consider: Legal Structure

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development Co-Director Joseph P. Kalt discusses the types of corporations that Native nations can charter and what they should consider when deciding which type to choose.

Resource Type
Citation

Kalt, Joseph P. "The Practical Issues of Business Development - Some Things to Consider: Legal Structure." Building and Sustaining Tribal Enterprises seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 29, 2007. Presentation.

"They've asked me to just say a few words here to kick off this session and talk about the kinds of entities and structures that we're seeing used out there and that are working or not working in Indian Country. And I guess it's our gig at the Harvard Project and at NNI is to try to focus on what's working, but we often start with what's not working. And I want to describe two -- I won't even name the two tribes I'm about to say something about -- but it's sort of a lesson in what not to do. And here's the way they're going about economic development and development of tribal enterprises. They have an economic development committee. The economic development committee is just appointed, it's unpaid, appointed by the tribal council, has its roots in the old U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration grants. They ran out of the grant money, but they sort of kept the committee and the committee's job is to, number one, go out and find us some businesses to invest in. Number two, bring those investors to us, the tribal council, and sort of vet them and tell us whether we should invest in them. And this sort of strategy, and then the end result if they're successful, in one case one tribe actually has three enterprises, all of which are losing money rapidly and the tribe is trying to get out of [them]. If they're successful, this economic development committee, in finding a business, as if you're sort of, I don't know, looking for a four-leaf clover or something. If you're successful what happens is the tribal council basically buys a business, owns it, as if they were buying pencils for the office. It has no separate legal structure, it's just a tribal enterprise and the tribal council will appoint -- as if it were another grants program -- an enterprise manager. And again and again and again this, which is really, you can hear the way I'm telling the story, a holdover from the old grantsmanship days where getting an enterprise was just like landing a grant. You just sort of found one and then appointed someone to be the head of the grant or head of the enterprise. And time and again across Indian Country, this has been a recipe for failure.

You see at the other extreme -- and Diane Enos came in and did it, the other extreme -- which is to build the legal structures to protect yourselves, to put in place -- I thought she said it beautifully -- it's not that you're taking politics out of these enterprises, it's that you're structuring them within a rule of law. And that's critical here. There is a huge job to be performed in the management of tribal enterprises by the tribal politicians. Someone needs to sit there and filter and make those decisions. Is this the direction we want to go? Is this the strategic step we want to take with our nation's assets? But it's not the tribal council's job to go figure out who gets the contract for the pencils in the office and I've seen...it wasn't pencils in the office, it was the printing of envelopes, bring down a tribal chairman. The guy got himself impeached over the envelope contract. That is, the day-to-day meddling in the business end. The same goes for tribal administration. So there's a critical job to be played by the tribal politicians and that is to set in place the legal structures and to make the big strategic choices. Do we want -- you hear at Salt River in a beautiful way -- do we want the interior of this reservation developed or not? Or are we going to set up a nine-mile corridor out on the edge of Scottsdale? 'Oh, that makes more sense to us.' Those are the critical strategic decisions that you want your elected officials to make. We often get associated with this phrase 'get politics out of business.' Yes and no. Politics properly by the rules, setting the overall directions and it should properly stay out of the decision who gets the contracts to print the name 'Salt River Sand and Gravel' on the side of this pen. So what kind of structures are we seeing out there?

The first structure is what I mentioned, it's a failing structure, unfortunately -- many tribes are learning -- and that's just go buy a business and run it like it's a grant. The alternatives to that, there's three main families that I'll touch on briefly here. There are three main structures that we see tribes using. One is the federally chartered corporation, Section 17 typically. These are corporations chartered by the federal government and really chartered under essentially the laws of the United States Congress. These Section 17 corporations give the tribe a legal entity chartered by the federal government. There isn't an explicit waiver of sovereign immunity and indeed these entities can be subject to suit. But, you can't get at the core tribal assets of tribal land or other assets not being held outside of that entity. In fact you can hear Diane talking a little bit about this, they're not talking these so-called Section 17 federal corporations. In other words, if that corporation owns some pickup trucks, yeah, those could be taken from you in a lawsuit over these Section 17 federally chartered corporations. But the Section 17 corporation does not let that car dealer or whoever it might be get at core tribal assets away from and outside of this entity. Why do this? It's sort of weird in an era of sovereignty and either you follow the ones that Joan and others and I do, we keep saying, 'Look tribes, run it yourself, run it yourself, run it yourself.'

Why do a Section 17 federal? Well, I was sort of surprised. We had one very interesting case out there, the Blackfeet in Montana have a corporation called Siyeh Corporation, S-I-Y-E-H, it's like the name. And it's very interesting, you ask Blackfeet, 'Why'd you go have the feds set up your corporation?' And they said, 'Look, to us it was an act of sovereignty and a little bit of desperation.' Many of you have heard about some of the Blackfeet Enterprises, Blackfeet Writing Instruments, the pencils and so forth that we used to get in grade school and so forth, Blackfeet National Bank. It had trouble, it had trouble finding that balance between politics that sets direction versus politics that constitutes meddling in the daily affairs. And they said, as a community, 'Look, we're having problems with our political systems and we're a little bit unstable, but at least as a community we can agree we'd like to get these enterprises in a way that they're insulated in terms of day-to-day meddling.' And so it's very interesting. It shocked me cause I've been Mr. Pro-Sovereignty. This is a case in which a tribe said, 'As a sovereign, we're going to ask another sovereign to charter this corporation to try to give us some time to work on our own political system over here at the same time we're trying to get some enterprises going.' So it's an interesting strategy, and one that as I say it sort of shocked me because we've been so hard on this horse of charter them yourselves, set them up yourselves, etc. So there are some cases apparently where a sovereign nation, in this case the Blackfeet, might make a choice to go with a federally chartered corporation.

The next layer down, of course, are state-chartered corporations, and for many tribes this is the quick way to get a corporation chartered. The owner of the enterprise is the tribe, but you get a corporation chartered under the laws of either Delaware, where everyone does the national corporations, or perhaps your own state. Under these state-chartered corporations typically, and I'm not a lawyer so don't take me as legal advice, but typically these state-chartered corporations do not provide for sovereign immunity but they essentially build a shell around the assets of the enterprise so that what can be sued is the enterprise, not the entire tribe. More and more tribes are moving to now a new model, after the federally chartered, the state chartered, more and more tribes are moving to a new model, which is tribally chartered corporations. And to us I think this represents the wave of the present and the future indeed, to Mike Taylor who has been very instrumental actually in developing a lot of this and that's partly what Salt River is doing. Under tribally chartered corporations, they typically involve a five-step, at least a five-step process. First, the tribe will pass a law of corporations establishing the rules, procedures, etc., under which tribes as an entity, individual tribal citizens, and even non-citizens can charter new businesses within the jurisdiction of the tribe. So just like here in the State of Arizona, if I want to go open a McDonald's or something I'll probably charter a corporation under the State of Arizona. More and more tribes are adopting the equivalent of the State of Arizona's laws of incorporation and they become Colville Tribe's laws of incorporations or Eastern Cherokee Tribe's laws of incorporation, and so forth. And that's critical because it sets down the framework, you've got to establish enterprises, but it's basically laying down all those rules, how board of directors will be created, what will their responsibilities be, what will their liabilities be, all these kinds of things.

The second layer that actually has to happen at the same time...Typically the law gets passed if you will and almost at the same time if not before tribes work on building up their own tribal court's capacities to handle business law. And so you find cases where tribes are simultaneously creating laws of incorporation and some tribes, for example, have begun to create a business court. So many tribal courts are buried as are everybody's courts with the family law cases, the juvenile cases, the drug cases, assault and so on and so forth that tribal judges just like the judges of Pima County are so often unschooled in and not ready for that really handling business law. And so you'll find tribes beginning to do things like create a tribal business court. Often it doesn't mean a whole lot other than we designate you as our business judge and we'll send you to some training, but at least you're trying to start that process of saying, 'We will adjudicate our own laws and our own laws of incorporation.'

After that there's a set of, a third, a next layer, third layer of laws. Those laws often deal with the business environment, adopting some version of a commercial code. It doesn't have to be the uniform commercial code of all, actually I think about 47 states are uniform now, but some version of laws that provide for garnishment, for the rules under 'if I need to repossess your truck, how long do I have to give you to repay?' and all of the... what are the procedures for taking you to tribal court and so forth so some form of a commercial code. In addition, as tribes create enterprises, either tribally owned or tribal member-owned corporations under their own laws, tribes find they need to do what most other governments in the world do, things like registration.

There's a very interesting case going on right now. Crow, in fact they may have done it this week, about to or just did. Crow sits there and they're trying to get some businesses going, they're going through everything I've just described, all these stages, and they look around and think, 'We need to register these corporations so they can go to court, people will know whose corporations they are.' They don't have the computer capacity right now and the record-keeping capacity. They're signing a memorandum of understanding with the State of Montana, Secretary of the State, not giving up any sovereignty, basically on a contract basis hiring the record-keeping services of the State of Montana, so that you can punch a button and call up, probably type in the word Crow, here comes all the Crow corporations. No jurisdiction at all, it's just purely the computerized record-keeping, which Crow recognizes that they need.

So there's the basic laws of incorporation, there's the strengthening of the tribal court around business law, there's then the laying in place the legal environment for businesses, the uniform codes, the recordings, etcetera. Then you get to the point of actually creating real enterprises, and we're talking enterprises, and I won't go into it today, others will and I think Joan in particular, but often this begins with the creation of a board of directors and a great deal of paperwork. It was fascinating, Diane carrying that big thick notebook that she showed you. There's a lot of paperwork that goes into just laying down, 'okay, here's how we're going to select members of the board. Here's how many can be from non-citizens of the tribe, how many citizens,' all these rules. 'What are the terms of office, terms for removal?' all of those things critical to have in place.

And then lastly once you've got the corporations created, then you're ready to actually begin to make investments. I went through this in order like this because so often I see tribes desperate...elected officials desperate for the ribbon cutting. That is for, I've got to show that I'm doing something, we've got a new business and often the cart gets way out ahead of the horse and you see tribes, 'Well, we'll buy a business and then later will pass the laws and we'll create a board of directors,' and so forth and so on and again and again and again without those structures that Diane Enos had in that notebook. That's where you see problems arise because there's no way then by which to say, 'Wait a minute, you didn't tell me you were going to wait six months to create a board and you promised me I could be on the board.' All of those problems arise without that laid in place, that infrastructure, the legal infrastructure prior to going out and buying a business. And so this has been a quick run-through, but those are the three models that we see, the federally chartered corporations, the state and the tribal. But you can't just do that, you've got to put that other infrastructure, your courts, the laws and so forth in place. So that's what we're seeing out in Indian Country, what's working."

Greg Gilham: Engaging the Nation's Citizens and Effecting Change: The Blackfeet Nation Story

Author
Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Greg Gilham, Former Chair of the Blackfeet Nation's Constitution Reform Committee, discusses the process the committee developed to move constitutional reform forward.

Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Gilham, Greg. "Engaging the Nation's Citizens and Effecting Change: The Blackfeet Nation Story." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 25, 2010. Presentation.

"I do want to commend Erma [Vizenor] for her presentation because she's hit on a lot of issues that our process up in Blackfeet Montana is going through. And we're probably, I think, a third of the way into our entire process. We started in October of 2008. We were appointed, there were five of us appointed to a committee to sit on this committee and do constitutional reform for our program. I'll get into that a little bit, but with 30 years of law enforcement experience, putting handcuffs and shackles on people, I can tell now what they go through.

Our Blackfeet Nation has a land description that I want to go over; a million-and-a-half total acres of land. Our reservation sits on the Canadian border to the north and we're adjacent to Glacier National Park to the west. 400,000 acres are owned by non-Natives on the reservation. We have 500,000 acres owned by the tribe and 600,000 acres owned by members. We have resources that we're very, very proud of on our lands and we have 136,000 acres of timber. Some of it burned in the last couple of years. We have 28 freshwater lakes and we got a real good opportunity with Glacier National Park next door to have a very good tourism set up. But because of our constitution as it is now, we're not getting anywhere. We're not building a stable government, we're not bringing in industry or tourism or business. I just wanted to relate to that. We have 16,482 tribal members, all have to fall within that quarter-degree of Indian blood, and about 9,200 live on the reservation and about 7,300 live off.

We were organized under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and it was adopted in 1935. Less than 10 years later our tribe was so concerned about this new IRA constitution that they requested a meeting with a Senate committee to try to address what they could do about this problem constitution that they were having to abide by. They were basically telling the Senate hearing that -- who by the way showed up by train and met with our tribal government then -- and their biggest concern was, 'What can we do to get ourselves out from under this new constitution, this new structure of government?' They basically said, "˜Well, you can certainly, you're allowed to make amendments to fit what you guys would need. You necessarily don't need to get yourself out from under it.' Well, since then we've had nine amendments to our constitution. I know Erma talked about enrollment. The only amendment to our enrollment that was done was accepting that quarter-degree mandate to be a member and that was done in 1963. This governing body that we have consists of nine council members who are all elected at large throughout all the members have an opportunity to vote them in. It doesn't allow for non-residents to affidavit vote or absentee vote from off the reservation, so in order for your vote to count and elect the councilors on reservation you have to show up at the polls.

In 2008 our tribe did, through the efforts of a single councilman who has gone to [a] 'Native Nation Building' [seminar] before a few years ago, Rodney Gervais, he wanted to see under the structure of Native nation building an opportunity for the membership to look at getting ourselves out from under this IRA or reforming our constitution. So in essence he was able to convince the majority of the council that he sat with at the time to put a referendum vote on the ballot for the 2008 June election that we had. And this referendum specifically asks the membership, 'Do you want to see a change in the Blackfeet tribal government by amending the constitution and bylaws to include separation of powers?' If the tribal membership agrees to this restructuring, a committee of five persons will be appointed by the tribal council to conduct community meetings and come up with recommendations on a separation of powers, utilization of Blackfeet traditions, values and ethics and other amendments which will go to the people for a secretarial election. Overwhelmingly, the membership that did cast their vote at the polls passed this and they did want to see a separation of powers and a new reformed constitution.

Once the referendum is voted on with an approval to reform, we found out in our process that the election occurred in late June and, of course, the referendum did pass and it became law basically. Our council kind of sat on their hands and didn't formulate this committee right away. So we, in essence, lost about three months before our group was selected to begin our reform process and hold community meetings and so forth. But some of the suggestions that we found out that was important was that the council should solicit applications from the membership to sit on a committee like this. It's important that they take a good look at who they should appoint. I was very fortunate because when we have our community meetings, we don't need to ask security to show up because they basically rely on me. Selection shall be made upon closing of the application process and it should be important that each applicant vying for a seat on this committee answer a questionnaire. We found out that some of the important facets of applying for committees or boards within any tribal organization is if we can convince these folks that are making the appointments to take the time and read what these applicants are writing, as far as their commitment to any board or committee that is in place. I feel that I was appointed not only because of my law enforcement experience but because I made sure that I let them know that I was committed to this process. So some of the things I wrote down was what do you want to become a sitting member to this board or committee? Are you committed to sitting on this committee and dedicated to this process for however long it will take? What attributes or characteristics do you possess that qualify you for a seat on this board? Relate your personal, professional or traditional background and experience that would add to this committee.

When that referendum passed, I had a brother-in-law of course that was elected. It was his first time to be elected on the council. And I saw this referendum and the language that we just saw a little bit ago. And I thought, if more people would look at what was actually put in place, how our referendum read as far as restructuring and adding a separation of powers, more people would look into that and see how important a new constitution is only going to strengthen our government. Most of my career was working for our Blackfeet Nation government and you don't have to tell me any horror stories, I can certainly relate a lot to you. We do have a council that or councils in the past that have pretty much dictated what goes on day in and day out. Of course you have problems with people that hire relatives for certain things and so forth.

Some of the things I jotted down for the council was to select a diverse and dedicated group of committee members that maintain their commitment to this process. And this is important; their credibility will need to start with their appointment. Credibility is really, really important. I know that Erma talked about it in their process, in her effort to try to get this reform. Of course you have all of your naysayers and so forth that want to collectively try to stop your process, slow it down or do whatever they can. Unfortunately for our process, we're right in the middle of that right now in the last couple of weeks. It's important that the council support the effort for reform. We have nine councilmen and all nine of them are in support of reforming our constitution and that's very rare to see a consensus of nine versus none for a reform of a constitution. They basically understand the concept of Native nation building. I believe all of them have attended a session on building of Native nations. They understand how our government is functioning now and what they can see in the future as far as a new reformed constitution. They have all participated in forums and surveys regarding this reform process. The majority of them have sat on focus groups.

Credibility will take its form if the committee remains autonomous. With the support of this sitting council we have remained very autonomous and that helps with the credibility. Any political pressure or micromanaging will lower the committee's credibility perception by the membership. Early on we had run into that difficulty, but since then we've worked diligently with the council and I think we're all going in the right direction as far as a reform process. Council should support the effort by shelling over the dollars. What I mean by that is if you're committed and you have an appointed group that has to go out to these communities, has to go out to the membership, get them to buy into this reform process, it's going to take some money, it's going to take a lot of time. We were shooting initially for a six-month process of beginning our appointment and I guess it was eight months. We were hoping by the following June that we'd have something in place as far as a new reformed constitution but that was a year and a half ago now.

So far the process has cost about $150,000 and most of it is having several meetings a week with communities throughout the reservation. We have seven base communities that have a good population base and places we can meet. We try to get in touch with most of the membership, but we found out early on that education to this reform process was most important. We initially had community meetings throughout the reservation and like Erma said, very few people showed up. We were finding out that the reason a lot of them showed up is because they had never read the constitution as it sits now, they don't understand it. So why should they give their two cents when they don't understand our constitution as it is today? Well, we had to change direction immediately and hold some educational workshops.

We invited Stephen Cornell out to the reservation in January and he took part in a symposium of sorts, a conference, workshop for...all we could hold was 200 people and for the most part we were fortunate that we did get enough participation from the public in our effort to try to educate them. We educated them on a history of the constitution; we educated them on Native nation building. We pretty much related some of the efforts that we planned in the future as far as this reform process goes. We had a very, very good turnout and of course we had to shell out some money ourselves in order to be successful in this process. I think it went over very well. We had good participation; we had a lot of enthusiasm built up. Well, after this two-day event we didn't, we as a committee didn't maintain this enthusiasm and right away we were finding out that, 'Geez, that was really, really great.' So since then we've made some adjustments and we've sat down as a committee and thought of ways that we can continue our education process.

We've videotaped most of our sessions, whether it was committee meetings, workshops, community meetings, whatever and we plan on putting a documentary together since our process in 2008 began. This documentation, we're going to provide it to whomever would like to see the process that we have gone through in our steps to try to get community involvement, try to re-adjust our constitution to fit for our future generations. Our symposium workshop that we had in January, we're getting that edited and we're going to start distributing DVDs out to anybody and everybody that wants one. It was a very educational bit that we did.

Right now we have five members, I'll just go over a little bit of their background. I of course am the chairman. John Murray is the tribal historic preservation officer for the tribe. I believe he still has to get his dissertation done but he's pretty close. He said he's 63 years old. Virgil Edwards, he's a successful businessman locally. And George Kipp is the vocational education director at the community college. Linda Warden has worked with the youth in different capacities throughout the reservation. As you can tell, we had a pretty diverse group. John and Mr. Kipp, they both have a cultural and traditional background among them. Each of them respectively, they hold certain sacred bundles through our tribal program.

Once we get through with our process, which I can probably say is going to take another one or two years, we're going to present a reform constitution to the council. They'll ask for a secretarial election and that election process, it's a 90-day turnaround according to 25 CFR. I know that we were fortunate to have the Minnesota Band of Chippewas challenge the registration process that the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] mandates within their secretarial election. They felt that closing a registration process and the mail-in voting wasn't going to get enough members to vote on this issue of constitutional reform. During their request for a waiver they were granted authority to register the voters up to the day that they vote. So rather than worry about a 30 percent turnout, which made it a legal election, they were able to have 76 percent turnout because people that showed up to vote at the polls were allowed to register at the same time in order to vote. So we're in the process of using their effort to insure that we have enough votes so that we don't lose out on our effort for a long process of trying to reform our constitution and then have the membership...

Community advice is do not include enrollment changes as [part of the] process. That's what we're fighting with the grassroots group right now. They feel that our effort to throw in enrollments is going to kill our constitution reform. And it will. We've maintained that we won't bother that issue. The tribe should provide reform with an adequate budget. Although tribe remains the governing authority, they must provide committee with autonomy. Transparency, be open in everything you do. Public education is the only tool to combat apathy. This is what will mobilize the community. Committee planning and procedures, a media, public relations, get the information out. We have a website and it's under www.blackfeetvoice.org [note: this site is no longer active] and we have everything we've done, all of our research and all of our resources are available online. We have a telephone number, and that's it."

Virgil Edwards: How Are We Going About Remaking Our Constitution?

Producer
Archibald Bush Foundation and the Native Nations Institute
Year

Blackfeet Constitution Reform Committee Member Virgil Edwards discusses the process the Blackfeet Nation devised to reform its constitution, and describes how politics ultimately derailed the process before it could produce a new constitution for the Blackfeet people.

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

Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Edwards, Virgil. "How Are We Going About Remaking Our Constitution?" 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.

"I'll try to get through this. I don't really know how to operate this thing. I might use this little button here or maybe this button. I just learned to text last week. My grandkids said, "˜Why don't you text me, grandpa?' And I said, "˜Heck, I can drive out to your house faster than I can text.' So I'm going to try to push the right button here.

The Blackfeet Nation has a lot of resources like probably many of your reservations. We have a lot of acreage, timber and freshwater lakes, tourism. We're adjacent to Glacier National Park. We see two million-plus visitors. We have 340 producing wells and these new 25 wells looking for that Balkan formation; so a lot of resources. Sadly, there's about 400,000 acres of our one-and-a-half million acre reservation that's owned by non-members, but the rest of it is controlled by the tribe; the entire reservation is controlled by the tribe. We have roughly over 16,000 members. 9,000 or so live on the reservation, about 7,000 off. But we have 70-80 percent unemployment. How could that be with all of these resources? How could we have this problem, this poverty issue?

The Blackfeet constitutional reform is...the tribe, I don't know which other tribes did it, but when it came around, there were opportunities to vote on the constitution and the people voted for it and we had a constitution in 1934. Almost immediately, we found that we didn't get what we had bargained for back then. I wasn't around back then, but listened to the old timers talk about it. That we had, there was dissatisfaction with the IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] government. And in 1944, there was a letter to the commissioner asking for reform. They wanted to change it. It didn't do as it had promised. It promised to do away with the loss of our land and to give us self-rule and to begin economic development. They weren't happy then with the constitution.

And then about ten years later, there was a constitutional convention, another attempt. And I found some records about that, how a group of people wanted to try to change the constitution. In 1964, another attempt was made and this is where I think corruption really started to happen, because of the lessening of that Class A funds. The Bureau of Indian Affairs controlled that funding source from our resources and then the councils got control of that -- and I think they were worse than the BIA -- and they became somewhat corrupt. And so in 1972, there was another attempt and I worked n that issue.

We began in 1970 and worked for two years in redrafting a constitution. Two hundred fifty people from across the reservation and off the reservation worked on the constitution to revise it completely to try to take advantage of our resources and curb this poverty issue and all the social ills that we have -- put the money where we thought it should go. And a new council was elected and that attempt failed through their council vote and so they did not support that so it went away. And there were sporadic attempts over those times to try to do something with the constitution and change it for the, to give the people a voice, but it just never really happened. And then we had a -- I guess this is just a little bit more about the IRA -- we adopted the IRA constitution and approval of secretary [of Interior] is riddled throughout our constitution. I think it appears in our constitution about 17 times. You really can't do anything unless you have the permission from the BIA.

In 2008 or maybe 2006, we had a council that started to believe in reform and had almost the perfect setting. The majority of our nine-member council wanted to see something happen and change. And so it was the beginning of this reform movement in this past two years that we had went through. So there was a referendum that was passed by the people and the people overwhelmingly supported this need for change. Incidentally, in our constitution, it says that this referendum process is legal and binding upon our councils. And so we had the support of a council that was in place. They put together a committee of five people -- myself included along with Greg Gilham and John Murray, and G.G. Kipp (we call him; he's a bundle holder), and Linda Warden has a background in law enforcement; I have a background in business -- and we began the process of trying to change the constitution.

We went out to the communities and sadly one of the things we discovered is that most of the older people who had lived under our constitution and maybe knew something about it were gone. There were only a few. In fact at the constitutional convention, we had a couple elderly ladies there that were in that reform movement that I was in -- and 85 years old. And they stayed there religiously every night to help frame the constitution. But we went out to the communities and we visited with the people. And these were sparsely attended, but what we found was that the younger generation was really ignorant of our constitution. They really didn't understand it or even know of its existence or what our council should be doing for them with their resources. We found then that -- because of this lack of knowledge of our constitution or our governing way for the Blackfeet -- that it was important then to go out and go to the people and find out another way to get their interest peaked in this area.

And so we got a hold of the Blackfoot Project and that's a group of people looking to improve their education, higher education people, people who were seeking their doctorates and masters degrees. And this is a group of maybe about 60 people, all Blackfeet members, mostly women. So they went out and we found these focus groups. We targeted the college students and the elders and the tribal employees, people who worked for our tribal government, business leaders, the TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] participants, all of these different groups of people and put them into focus groups and discussed with the constitutional reform and change and getting their ideas. So I thought this was really significant. It showed us that people wanted to support the change after they talked about it. We made copies of our constitution, our present constitution, and placed those all over the reservation and brought them to the schools and to the Blackfeet Community College. I think we did the right thing in getting the people educated, but I can't overstate the importance of education of the membership that's going to be deciding the constitution. It's just so critical and a lot of time needs to be spent in this process.

We did interviews and went to the educational system. And then we found out that what we would do is we'd try to kick this thing off. We developed a plan and we had a symposium. We had a two-day symposium -- much the same as we're doing here -- but we had over 200 participants in that symposium. And we invited every walk of life on the reservation you can imagine and we took walk-ins also. We had standing room only at times and we invited people from the Native Nations Institute, other people that were involved in reform. I think we invited somebody from the Crow Reservation [that] had just recently changed their constitution. And so it really built some enthusiasm, groundswell of involvement.

People wanted to get involved and so we followed that up with a constitutional convention. It was overwhelming. We had it at the Blackfeet Community College in the commons room and we had all these participants showing up and we broke them into five groups and we began the process of them writing the constitution. We as committee members acted as facilitators in discussion and led them through each segment of our constitution. So that's how they wanted to start and we did it their way. So I think this ownership has to be from the people. You can maybe hire some [legalese] to go out there and write your constitution and do whatever you can, but it really is going to take the people to draft the constitution and that's what we did.

We had the people involved to every level. Of course we did feed them. They like to eat. Like I noticed that, where did he go? Taken Alive? I think that was the fifth trip he made up there to that. So we fed the people. Important to take care of their needs there and it was done after hours. People volunteered there. We made it available, the convention, on their time. We didn't hold it during the business hours so that people could attend in the evenings. Sometimes we went until midnight. So a very long day, but that's what the people did. They were really enthused and so we had a lot of people attend the drafting process.

We published everything that we did in the local papers. We built a website and we let the news out there and we got on the local radio station and we talked about the constitution. We had debates and just invited everybody into this thing so that it was real transparent to see what the change was, how it was affecting and answered all the questions. So we did all of this and it was a great thing. So finally after all of these sessions, and also we involved the...in some of the last sessions, we involved the people working for the tribal government, all the departments, all the directors. And they were excited about this change and it was just a great thing to see that this could happen.

So finally, I think the next planned step was to work with the attorneys. We hired a couple of attorneys that had worked in constitutional reform and they took the writings of the people and they began to condense them down. There's a lot of verbiage in these constitutions -- people say it like they want to say it -- and so we hired those people and we began that process in July. We were...after that, the plan was to get the draft and then go back out to the people, have them review it, see if there's any changes they need -- giving them a second look at it -- and then continue ultimately to that voting day when it would happen.

Now sadly, what happened is that in June of 2010 we had a new election. That support that we had on that council was there, five out of the nine. And then unfortunately some of those people didn't get reelected. So we had a new council elected and they ended it all for us at their very first meeting. The chairman, along with the other four -- two of them newly elected -- voted to kill the reform movement. Now you would think then with all these people involved, the number of people that taught constitutional change, would have got excited and rushed to help us out, the committee. What I think it was like when Christ was there and he looked around and where were they? They weren't there.

But I'll tell you what happened. I think that...on our reservation, our Tribe, our government employs 850 people. And so if you look at that and you spider web that out there, you'd see that maybe this person isn't working for but your daughter may be working for the government. So if you speak up against these people, there's a chance then that you could jeopardize your family member's job. That's sad, but that's the truth. Our tribal government now goes through millions of dollars unchecked without anybody...a $15 million bonus here last month or two months ago and it's gone; disappears into what we call the 'Black Hole 099.' And all these opportunities for economic development are gone and change is no longer there.

So that's what happened to the Blackfeet. I think we did it right, I think we had the right idea, but sadly we don't have the support of the current sitting governing body and really that's the end of it. One of the interesting things I'd like to point out to you -- what the framers found as they were looking through our present constitution -- we have jurisdiction over a single line on the map. Most of these boilerplate constitutions that come out I suppose it said, "˜Define your boundaries by your last treaty.' Our last agreement with the government was for the sale of Glacier National Park and it describes the western boundary of our reservation. So we have jurisdiction over a single line on the map. A flaw, serious flaw that's still there after 76 years. We can't develop a meaningful inheritance code because of a single line in there and there are other issues. We give eminent domain to the State of Montana and any agency thereof or the federal government in our present constitution. Serious flaws, but we can't do a thing about it. And that's really it. That's what happened to us. That's the Blackfeet experience. I didn't see the stop sign, but I'm going to stop before she flags me. Thank you."

Blackfeet: Stocking the Aisles

Author
Year

...Although Glacier Family Foods adds 56 new employees to the Blackfeet Reservation’s year-round workforce, the people behind the store’s creation hope it will do much more than create immediate jobs. For the last 20 years, members of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and the community bounced around the idea of opening a tribally owned grocery store to attract other businesses. It only came to fruition after the Siyeh Corporation, the business arm of the Blackfeet tribe, took on the project. In 2010, the Siyeh Corporation conducted a market analysis that confirmed the Browning community and the Blackfeet Reservation could support a second grocery store (Browning’s long-standing Teeple’s IGA is the first) as well as the competition it would bring to the market. Josh Embody was out of work for a year before he landed a job at Glacier Family Foods. Embody said he looks forward to being able to help pay bills at home. Competitively driven prices at the local grocery stores could entice more people to shop on the reservation, stemming the flow of traffic – and the flow of money – to outside towns like Cut Bank, Kalispell and Great Falls. For many people on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana, Glacier Family Foods is a sign that things might be looking up...

Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Downing, Emily. "BLACKFEET: Stocking the Aisles." Native News Project 2012. University of Montana School of Journalism. Missoula, Montana. 2012. (http://nativenews.jour.umt.edu/2012/stories/blackfeet/, accessed March 8, 2023)

Blackfeet Constitutional Change Class

Producer
Blackfeet Community College
Year

The summation of all several videos...the complete 6 1/2 hour taping of the discussion of why our current Constitution, Charter, and Plan of Operations have become ineffective for our current times as a people and Piikani Nation for "Blackfeet Government Change" of Joe McKay and Blackfeet Community College "Blackfeet Constitutional Change Class" given to the community and students and faculty of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and Piikani People at large to inform them about the contents of their Constitution, Charter, and Plan of Operations for future use by all Piikani (Blackfeet).

People
Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

McKay, Joe. Blackfeet Constitutional Change Class. Blackfeet Community College. Browning, Montana. Apr 1, 2015. Video. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZF1FD757FM, accessed March 8, 2023)

 

Indian Pride: Episode 112: Tribal Government Structure

Producer
Prairie Public
Year

This episode of the "Indian Pride" television series, aired in 2007, chronicles the governance structures of several Native nations in an effort to show the diversity of governance systems across Indian Country. It also features an interview with then-chairman Harold "Gus" Frank of the Forest County Potawatomi (FCP) in Wisconsin, who provides a detailed overview of FCP's constitution and governance system, including how it determines who its citizens are.

Resource Type
Citation

Prairie Public. "Indian Pride (Episode 112): Tribal Government Structure." Indian Pride television series. Prairie Public. Fargo, North Dakota. 2007. Video. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEGf_AI19to, accessed July 24, 2023)