Terry Janis: Citizen Engagement and Constitutional Change at the White Earth Nation

Native Nations Institute

Terry Janis (Oglala Lakota), former Project Manager of the White Earth Nation Constitution Reform Project, provides participants with a detailed overview of the multi-faceted approach to citizen engagement that the White Earth Nation followed as it worked to educate the White Earth people about the nation's proposed constitution in advance of their November 2013 referendum vote on the new document. He also shares some lessons learned from his experience at White Earth, and stresses that those engaged in constitutional reform efforts always respect the opinions of all of those people who have a direct stake in the outcome of those efforts. 

Resource Type

Janis, Terry. "Citizen Engagement and Constitutional Change at the White Earth Nation." Tribal Constitutions Seminar, Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 2, 2014. Presentation.

"So my name is Terry Janis. I'm Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation and I worked for the last year at White Earth Nation, which is in northern Minnesota, which is an interesting thing because historically Sioux people, Lakotas, are enemies with Anishinaabe people, Ojibwe people. But they hired me, so what can you say? And it was a fun year. I'm a lawyer; I came to the University of Arizona for law school. I've known Rob Hershey forever and the other people that are here. And this kind of presentation for me here today is not so much going to focus on the White Earth Nation constitution per se, but on our educational process.

By the time I got on the scene, in the 1990s like a lot of places there was a huge governmental crisis, indictments, convictions, etc. In '97, very soon after that was resolved, they realized that it was the IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] constitution that was really at the core of those issues. Whenever you engage and bring together all the power and decision-making authority in one small body, the likelihood of abuse and corruption is fairly high and they very quickly turned to this idea of reforming their constitution. They tried it in '97, but because of that recent history there was still too much division like in a lot of situations. I'm from Pine Ridge, we have plenty of examples of this where you get into a fight like this and you get factions and you have a hard time letting it go. So they waited for 10 years and then in 2007 did a process for drafting a proposed constitution.

There's important issues -- and we can engage in a long conversation about their drafting process because there's a lot to learn from it -- but the idea of an open and free opportunity for input, transparent drafting and revision process, opportunity for compromising consensus, the question of whether all of that is there in your drafting process is critical and there's going to be plenty of chance...Red Lake is doing an amazing job of really trying to engage that in a very real sort of way and a number of tribes are as well that are right in the drafting process.

But when I came on the scene, they had already completed that process and they had a proposed constitution. It was completed in 2009 and when I came on, my job was to start a dialogue, start a conversation amongst the community about this proposed constitution and then move it to a referendum vote so that the people themselves would decide whether they wanted to accept or reject this proposed constitution. And the other caveat that I had is that they were not going to allow any more changes, that the document that they created from 2007 to 2009 is the document that they voted on in November of 2013.

And I was brought on about a year ago, so in April of 2013. We had from 2009 to April of 2013 not really much going on, not a lot of conversation about it, some publications in the newspaper, but that was the challenge that we had ahead of us of how to pick this thing up, communicate to folks about what the delegates at the convention as well as the current council decided to do in moving this proposed constitution to a vote. And so I came in, we pulled together a team and started thinking about how do you engage an educational process with the community, how do you do that so that the people themselves are informing themselves and have opportunity to inform themselves as much as possible.

And so we looked at these three kind of ideas as a starting point and we realized that you really have to have multiple venues in multiple formats. You can't just hold one big seminar and expect that to meet everybody's needs. You can't just hold community meetings and expect that to meet everybody's needs. You have to have a range of different things: going door to door, talking to people in their kitchen, organizing community meetings that are part of the infrastructure that's already there with whatever that is, community councils, church groups, elder groups, whatever that is, utilizing all of the infrastructure that's already there and holding meetings and informational sessions with them, working with that infrastructure to bring people together, utilizing their networks, utilizing their relationships, utilizing their own feelings about this.

Formats as well. You know how the educational process is. Some of us learn best by looking and by hearing and by talking. Some of us learn best by reading, others have to write things out. Oftentimes for me, it's a combination of things. When I'm talking to somebody, when I'm listening to somebody, when I'm writing notes, when I'm reading it, it's that combination of stuff that does it for me. And so we try to engage all of those different formats and try to create situations where whenever we brought people together, we had all those formats there as well, recognizing everybody learns in their own way, especially as adults. Most of you are adults. We learn in different ways and hopefully we know how we learn best so we can bring those resources to ourselves.

So we tried to do that, a lot of meetings and types of meeting, utilizing the infrastructure that was already there, having a lot of printed materials, having a lot of visuals, having a lot of opportunity for conversation and debate, putting together a workbook where they could draw out and write notes and make it their own. And so we tried to create all of that functionality, all of that process.

The other thing that we really tried to do...and actually was the good thing about me being a Lakota coming into Ojibwe country is I wasn't involved in the drafting process; historically, I'm their enemy. I could be neutral. I didn't have anything invested in this document that they created. I didn't really have a strong feeling one way or another and I could maintain that idea that I was coming in to help people get the information that they need in order to make up their own mind -- that idea of neutrality. It was also strengthened by the kind of career that I pursued as well, that I could say in a very clear and honest sort of way that my interest in this is that the people make up their own mind, that the people have the authority and the information and the tools that they need to come to their own decision. Because as a Lakota man from our traditions, the sovereignty of our nation resides with each individual man and woman and then it moves from there to the family and to the tiospayes and then to the nation. And in our tradition, our sovereignty rests with each individual. And so that was my focus, that was the base of my assertion of neutrality, and I told them that story over and over and over and over. And so there's value in that -- of having an educational and informational process that's not tied to one family or one political party or pro or con. It's a group of people that you bring together to provide the resources for information and education that emphasizes the fact that sovereignty in this decision lies with each individual person. That's what was important to us, not what they decided or which way they went. So that idea of neutrality.

And then we went into it just thinking like Indian people. How are Indian people, how do they decide stuff, the use of humor, the use of respect and integrity, respecting everybody's position, everybody's history, everybody's ideas, connecting the materials to their interests. For me as an Indian person, if I have a conflict with my tribal government or some other thing, I may oftentimes -- or any of us might oftentimes -- put off this idea that we don't really care, but just the opposite is true. We as Indian people care deeply, almost always. And so the trick in an educational process is how do you connect these resources to the things that we as Indian people care about and thinking about who the people are, what their history is, what they really care about, and how do you present the material and information to them in the way that lines up with the things that they care about. That is what any good teacher will do -- whether you're teaching math or science or history -- is how do you line up the information that you're teaching with what the students care about and then how do you engage it with them from that perspective? So that's basically all we were trying to do.

The final thing that we came in this with...with this idea of respecting the politics of the community. Any time you're dealing with a constitutional reform process, regardless of how narrow or broad, it's a political issue, it just is. And if you're going to engage your community to help that community, to learn about it, come to their own decision and respect their decision, and you're going to do it in a way that really has good educational pedagogy and groundwork, that's not going to be enough.

In any reservation community, you're going to have to deal with the politics of the situation. You just have to. You cannot avoid it. You cannot wish it away. If somebody's mad, one family is mad at another, you've got to deal with that. You've got to find a way of dealing with it. If one group hates the elected leader -- which in White Earth they really, really do -- you've got to deal with that. You've got to go into communities maintaining your neutrality, maintaining your emphasis on this idea that the people are the source of sovereignty and it's important that they make a decision and that's why I'm here and that their hatred of the chairperson, their hatred of the secretary-general...or secretary-treasurer or anybody else is important, it's valid. Not that I'll agree with them, yes or no, but that their feelings, their political base is valid, it has value.

It's not my place as an educator on these issues, on these highly political issues, to argue with them about the rightness or wrongness of their politically held positions. My job is to see them, to understand them and to respect them and to make room for them. In an educational process, if you're going to have a conversation about the content of a constitutional reform and help people to understand what that reform is, you're going to have to make space for those political issues.

So that was our starting point and we went through six months of almost 60 different community education sessions, hundreds of small-room conversations, thousands of phone conversations, an all-day seminar, eight radio interviews...there's a community radio station that we used a lot...internet and web-based streaming formats of all of the training sessions, all of the seminar materials and other stuff, everything available online. Even the ugly conversations, we put it up on the web. The whole world was able to see if they wanted to how intense and vibrant this thing was. And that was our goal. We put all of this stuff up and there's a few things that we learned. [I've got a few more minutes.] These are the things that we learned.

Politics and power in the community must be respected. I ended that previous slide with it and I began this final slide with that. This cannot be overstated. You have got to make room for the politics of that community. You've got to. A constitution is inherently a political document and people have got to see it and engage it. If they're not engaging it, if they don't have...and remember what I said earlier, we as Indian people, we care. There is not one of us that lacks for caring. Even if it's the only thing we care about is drugs or something, we as Indian people care deeply about a lot of different things. And whenever you combine that with a political issue, especially if you're dealing with membership and citizenship, which the White Earth constitution did and moved from a quarter-degree blood criteria to lineal descendancy; a hugely, hugely volatile issue for the entire community. And we realized that coming off the history of that community, coming off what this proposed constitution was proposing that politics and power in the community must be respected. And that process is not easy; it requires you to deal with sometimes very extreme emotions.

I can tell you, when somebody's really angry and you know how spit'll comes out of their mouth sometimes, I can tell you exactly how far it goes so I put myself right at this space so it doesn't hit me. That was the nature of it. You just...you've got to be okay with it and it may not come to that, you can do a number of things that try to engage it in a way that defuses it, but sometimes you're not going to be able to.

The truth for me, I found, that what I wanted was an escalating interest and that is going to show itself in a variety of ways. Sometimes people are going to get more excited and more positive about it. Other times people are going to get more excited and more negative about it. We want an escalating amount of interest in this thing because we had a timeframe moving to November 19th to a vote. We wanted an escalating amount of energy, an escalating amount of dialogue, people taking positions and arguing for their decisions. I said this over and over and over, "˜Don't be quiet. Talk to every family member, go to the tribal council meetings, talk about these things as much as you can.' I wasn't at the council meetings so I didn't care, but that was my job.

The second thing is the importance of emotion and passion, which we basically just talked about, but it really does work, this idea. And in some ways it was just happenstance, something that you stumble across, but it was something that my elders told me. Once I was deciding to go to law school and stuff like that, we started having these conversations about sovereignty and where it comes from and what's the traditional base of it amongst Oglala Lakota people, and those are the things that they taught me. And I used what they taught me from that traditional base to have these conversations in the White Earth community, that there's value and reality in the individual holding the base of that sovereignty and making those sovereign decisions for themselves, taking that responsibility, carrying that burden and making that decision. So that results in emotion and passion, that results in interest and care, that results in decision-making and advocacy, and I think that's what you want. You want your people to be interested and from that perspective, there's no win or lose. Whether the constitution passed or not, we created interest and care and passion about it.

Timing and place for building momentum. Do not put yourself in a situation where you complete a drafting process and then wait three or four years before you do anything with it. It's a tough deal, if you're going to actually go through the process of drafting it, and what I'm learning about Red Lake and other places that are engaging the drafting process, do that in a deliberate way where you have plenty of opportunity for feedback and compromise and engagement. Engage an educational process without a bunch of delay. I think it's fine to make a decision -- once you have to draft -- to move it to a vote without further change, I think there's value in that, but if you have a huge delay like this, like we had, it's kind of fishy, it's kind of weird. How important is this thing really if you're going to do that? So keep that in mind.

You really do want to build momentum. You want to build this process where there's participation and engagement in the drafting process, that there's time and debate on people...allowing people to come to a decision. This is a pretty important decision, whether it's a small constitutional amendment or a complete reform of their constitution. Each one of those is critical and if the people are going to vote, then it's important that they be a part of that or at least have an opportunity to participate in that drafting and then give them time to really come to a decision, fight with each other, engage with each other, debate. And then a process for a vote.

Maintaining a firm principle in neutrality -- and again, some of this is just fortuitous -- but not only was I given the opportunity to do this as a Lakota in Ojibwe country, but the elected leadership, the tribal council, the chairperson, the secretary-treasurer were consistently supportive of that idea as well. Not because of me -- and I'm sure they had their own political reasons as well -- but when the council also supported our educational efforts and our education team, gave us the space and the resources to engage, didn't interfere. They still had their own opinions, they were divided just like everybody else was, but they emphasized the desire that the people themselves would decide and that the educational process would engage in a neutral fashion, that we would not promote one direction or another. There is real value in that. If you engage in an educational process and you're pushing it one way constantly, it's just going to fail. I think it's going to push against you and I think you're going to end up with a bad result. And so there was real value in that.

The final thing that we really learned as much as anything else -- especially when you're engaging a very broad reform like we did and on very highly controversial issues like from blood quantum to lineal descendancy -- you're going to get some pretty intense opposition and some of you have experienced that. Almost every other tribe that I've talked with that have engaged this, they come up with words like "˜the local Taliban' or the kind of intense kind of argument and debate and opposition. It's really important to just do it, to maintain your focus, to stay your course, and that attitude of doing it has to be a commitment from your educational team that does it with respect, respecting all of those people that would give voice to the strength of their opinions regardless of what that opinion is. But also the elected leadership, the elected leadership cannot back away. They have to maintain a principled approach to this and that was the value of White Earth's elected leadership as well. Their position -- whether they supported it or opposed it -- consistently, "˜We want it to go to a vote, we want the people to decide and we'll respect the decision of the people.' So those kind of principles and those kind of ideas help you as a team to stick with it, to stay with it and bring it to a referendum vote or whatever the eventual process is.

So those are the key principles that we engaged in our educational process. They're very simple. There's a lot of other details. Whenever you start into it, you want to think about the educational process, what is a learning process for adults on your reservation? They're going to be fairly consistent. We learn through different formats. We have to learn by seeing it, by coloring it, by writing it, by hearing it, by arguing it, by watching a movie, by going to your grandma's house or whatever it is. That's how we learn. You're going to have passion with it. So the general educational process in the pedagogy of your people, adult education; this is not new stuff, none of this is new stuff. This is understood.

As Indian people, how do we learn? Humor, everything else, food, it's got to be there. And the passion. The passion is there. We as Indian people, we are passionate people. We just are. We care deeply. How are you going to connect these sometimes very technical things, constitutional reform? We're going to go over some of those technical stuff, the legal side of this this afternoon as well. How do you connect that to what people really care about and have those conversations and take the time. It takes time, evening, morning, whatever that timeframe is that people think the best. I've set up sessions at 5:00 in the morning because that's when that guy thought the best and we did it. This is what it takes and it's doable and it's fun in a lot of ways. If you care about education, this combination of education, grounded in tribal sovereignty. That's what we learned as the keys to having a successful education and information process."

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