Vanya Hogen: Redefining Citizenship Criteria Through Constitutional Reform and Other Means

William Mitchell College of Law in conjunction with the Bush Foundation

Lawyer and tribal judge Vanya Hogen (Oglala Sioux) discusses the difficulties inherent in amending Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) constitutions to redefine tribal citizenship criteria, and shares the story of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community as an example of one Native nation with an IRA government who was able to change its criteria through another approach: adoption.

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

Resource Type

Hogen, Vanya. "Redefining Citizenship Criteria Through Constitutional Reform and Other Means." Tribal Constitutions Conference, Tribal Citizenship Conference, Indian Law Program, William Mitchell College of Law, in conjunction with the Bush Foundation. St. Paul, Minnesota. November 13, 2013. Presentation.

Colette Routel:

"Our next speaker is Vanya Hogen. Vanya is a graduate of the University of Minnesota's law school and ever since she graduated she's worked in the field of Indian law. She first worked at the BlueDog Indian law boutique firm and later went on to Faegre & Benson, which is now called Faegre Baker Daniels and then the Jacobson Buffalo law firm and has recently formed her own firm called Hogen Adams where she's representing Indian tribes.

Some of her sort of notable litigation successes I guess include representing Lauren Pourier in motor fuel tax litigation against the State of South Dakota and receiving a favorable decision from the South Dakota Supreme Court preventing the state from collecting motor fuel tax on the reservation to tribal members. And more recently she won a recent case in the 8th Circuit for the Fond du Lac Band [of Lake Superior Chippewa] challenging the required continued payments to the City of Duluth as part of their Fond du Luth Casino.

Vanya's going to talk with us here today about her representation of the Shakopee [Mdewakanton Sioux] Community in their enrollment and citizenship disputes and talk a little bit about revising IRA constitutions and non-IRA constitutions. I should say now she is actually a judge for Shakopee and has been for a number of years and doesn't represent them right now. So I hope you'll join me in welcoming Vanya Hogen."


Vanya Hogen:

"Thanks not only for the nice introduction, but for inviting me to speak today. I'm going to apologize in advance because I've got sort of a bad cold and may break out into a fit of coughing during my presentation, but I'll do my best. The topic that I was given is ‘Mechanisms of Constitutional Reform' and I am going to talk about constitutional reform, particularly in the context of membership criteria, but I also want to talk to you about a way...another possible way to change membership criteria without having to amend your constitution. This is based on my experience in working with the Shakopee community.

As Colette mentioned, I am a judge for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community's tribal court now. I have been since 2007, so everything I'm talking about today are from cases I worked on before I was on the bench, when I served as a lawyer for the Community and it's all from years of litigation in cases that are public, so that's why I can talk to you about it today.

The Community started in the early ‘90s to talk about changing its membership criteria from having a quarter blood requirement -- which was a quarter Mdewakanton Sioux blood -- to moving toward a lineal descendency requirement and it was a controversial idea. There was certainly not unanimity of opinions in the Community about whether they should make that move, but the Shakopee Community is very small. It only became federally recognized in 1969 and at the time they were recognized, there were less than 40 people who comprised the original membership of the community. And because of the quarter Mdewakanton Sioux blood requirement, they started to realize that kind of all the intermarriage that could occur within the community had already occurred. At the time we were looking at this in the early ‘90s there were really just eight different family groups that comprised the whole community and so if they kept the quarter blood requirement, folks could see that going into the future the membership was going to go down and down and down. And so there was a move to try to change the membership requirements and they ended up doing this in two different ways, one of which ended up being successful and one of it did not end up being successful. And I'm going to start by talking about their efforts at constitutional reform and this, I think, will be more broadly applicable.

The Shakopee Community was organized under the IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] and its constitution has language in it that says that any amendments have to be approved by the Secretary [of Interior], which means calling a secretarial election. Other tribal constitutions -- for tribes who aren't organized under the IRA, for example -- aren't required to go through the secretarial election process that's set out in federal regulations. And some tribes who were organized under the IRA have -- since the time they were originally setting up their constitutions -- have amended their constitutions and taken out those federal...the requirements to do a secretarial election. But at Shakopee, they had this requirement, and so there are federal regulations at Part 81 of Title 25 of the CFR that say exactly how you have to hold an election to amend your constitution. And I want to just quickly walk through how that process goes and then talk about how it went at Shakopee.

The first step is that the tribe has to figure out some internal process to come up with what the proposed amendments to the constitution are and often this happens consultation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and while that sounds paternalistic, if any of you are thinking of going through this process, I would actually recommend that you do get involved...get the Bureau involved early on, because at the very end of the process the Department of Interior has to approve or disapprove your amendments -- assuming they pass in the election -- based on whether they comply with applicable law or at least whether the Interior Department thinks they comply with applicable law. So you may as well know up front if the amendments that you're voting on comply with federal law at least in the view of the Department.

Once the tribe comes up with the proposed amendments, the tribal governing body has to vote to call the secretarial election. And the vote is not just to generally call an election to amend the constitution; it's a vote to call an amendment to amend the constitution in a particular way. So you actually are voting on calling election on the amendments that you are going to consider so you have to have them all done up front. The Department then has 90 days after that to call the election and then the Department sets up an election board, which consists of one Bureau official and two tribal members. And it's the election board's job to determine the voter list, to decide any challenges to the voter list and to actually oversee the election and the counting of the ballots, etcetera. The election board sets the potential voter list that gets published at the tribe and then people who are either...who have been left off the list and want to be on the list or somebody who's on the list and thinks other people are improperly on the list can file challenges with the election board. And what the regulations say is that the election board is supposed to be able to make final decisions about voter eligibility, which is important to the Shakopee story.

Once the election board decides on any voter challenges, they certify the final voting list, the election is held and then voters have three days in which they can challenge the election results. The Secretary then has...Secretary of the Interior then has 45 days to disapprove the amendments if she finds that the amendments are contrary to applicable law. So the way this is all written in the regs, it assumes that the challenges that are filed are not going to be about decisions on voter eligibility, it's all about the content of the amendments and trying to help the Assistant Secretary decide that they're contrary to applicable law.

What happened at Shakopee was the community engaged in a rather long process of holding community meetings to try to decide what the content of the proposed amendments should be, because they were not just looking at membership criteria, but they were also looking at, for one thing, taking all the requirements in their constitution for BIA approval of various ordinances and that kind of thing out of the constitution. If I recall correctly, because this was in the mid-1990s that they were doing this, they were also changing the size of their business council -- which governs the day-to-day activities of the tribe -- and several other things, putting references to the tribal court in the constitution. It was really kind of a major overhaul. So they came up with the language of the constitution, the governing body of the tribe, which at Shakopee was a general council, voted on those amendments, voted to call the election, the Secretary called the election or the...yeah, the designee of the Secretary called the election, an election board was set up, they put out a potential voter's list and there were challenges filed to over 50 percent of the voter's list and this kind of tells you a little bit about what was going on at the time in terms of membership disputes. As I say, there was a quarter-blood requirement, but there were a lot of disagreements in the community, as there are in a lot of different tribes at various times about, ‘Well, so and so isn't really a quarter blood. They never should have been included on that list,' or there's other families who everybody knows they're quarter bloods and they've been left off the list. There were all those kind of disputes and they all got filed with the election board as challenges.

So the election board goes through all the information that's been filed, they rule on these challenges to the voter list and they then certify the final voter's list. And as I say, the regs say that the election board's decisions about voter eligibility are final. So then there is an actual election and the constitutional amendments pass by...given the small size of the community, it was actually a fairly sizeable margin. Well, within the time to challenge, there are a couple different sets of challenges filed, all of them based on voter eligibility. And it turns out some of the people in the community who are very opposed to changing to a lineal descendency requirement are challenging the blood quantum of a lot of people who voted in the election and they file boxes of materials with the Assistant Secretary.

Well, under the...the way this is supposed to work, the Secretary -- it turns out to be the Assistant Secretary who did it in this case -- has 45 days to approve or disapprove the amendments and is only supposed to disapprove them if they're contrary to applicable law. Well, on the 43rd day, the Assistant Secretary issued a decision saying that because there was so much information filed he could not approve the amendments in the time allowed by the regs. And so what he was going to do instead, he ruled, was appoint an administrative law judge who would go through these boxes of genealogical materials that had been filed to decide who really should be allowed to vote. And then the Assistant Secretary said once the administrative law judge made recommendations to him about that, he would call a new secretarial election based on the decisions that were made about who should be allowed to vote.

Well, in response to that, the Community decided to sue the Department and to challenge the Assistant Secretary's decision, and the arguments that we made to the federal district court were first of all that the regulations say the election board's decisions are final and what does that mean if the Assistant Secretary can come back and reopen it to another process? So we argued that the Assistant Secretary's interpretation was unreasonable. The other thing that we argued was that because the Secretary didn't actually approve or disapprove the amendments within 40 days -- he just said I can't decide this in 45 days because there's too much material -- that the amendments should be deemed approved.

Unfortunately -- from the Community leadership's point of view and mine as their lawyer -- we lost that case. And what the district court said to us was -- ruled -- was that although he didn't necessarily think the Assistant Secretary's interpretation of the word 'final'...and what the Assistant Secretary had said was when the regs say that the election board's decisions are final, that just means final for the purposes of holding the election, it doesn't mean final forever. The judge said, 'That may not be the most reasonable reading, but it's not unreasonable so I'm going to uphold it.' And then the judge also ruled that the Assistant Secretary saying, ‘I just can't approve this within 45 days because of...there's too much information to go through,' was effectively a disapproval even though it wasn't a disapproval based on the only reason that you're supposed to be able to disapprove, which is if the amendments are contrary to law. So we appealed to the 8th Circuit, we lost on a two-to-one decision and so we ended up with a final ruling that the secretarial election process was going to have to start all over again after we waited for an administrative law judge to rule on the blood quantum of all these people who had been challenged.

Well, it took, after about two-and-a-half years, we still didn't have a ruling from the administrative law judge, and in fact we had gone through three administrative law judges because they kept getting transferred or quitting. And so finally the Community decided, 'Forget it. We don't want to deal with this process. We aren't going to try to amend our constitution. If we want to do another secretarial election, we'll start all over ourselves.' So they took a vote and voted to withdraw the request for a secretarial election, transmitted that to the Department and it took the Department just a mere year to finally acknowledge that that had been done and to say, ‘Okay, well, you're not going to hold a secretarial election, but we're still going to go through with this blood quantum process because we can use that information to distribute some Docket 363 monies.' So that process kept going for years even though it then had nothing to do with the secretarial election process.

As you might imagine, just from the length of time it takes for me to tell you this, it was about three years I think from the time that the Community had adopted these amendments to the time that they finally decided forget this process, it's not working. So they...and they had decided earlier to try this other approach as well and that was instead of amending their constitution to try passing an ordinance called an adoption ordinance that would allow the Community to adopt lineal descendents as members of the Community. Now the Community's constitution was sort of your stereotypical boilerplate IRA constitution, and so it has an article regarding membership and Section 1 of that article sets out the criteria, the blood quantum criteria for becoming a member. So you can either be listed on the base roll that was created when the Community was organized in 1969, you can be a child of one of those people who is at least a quarter-degree Mdewakanton or you can be a quarter-degree Mdewakanton and trace to the same roll that Lenor [Scheffler] was talking about earlier, the 1886, I think it was called the Hinton Roll. So that was...that's one section of their constitution regarding membership.

The second section is more procedural and what it says is that ‘the governing body shall have the power to pass resolutions or ordinances, subject to the approval of the Secretary, governing future membership adoptions and loss of membership.' So the Community's general council passed a resolution that allowed people to become adopted into membership if they were lineal descendents, that is you did not have to meet the quarter-blood requirement and it provided that once that happened they would get all...those adopted members would get all the same benefits of membership that any other member got. The Community submitted that ordinance to the, I think it was then actually even called the 'Area Office,' that's how long ago this was, sent it to the BIA and the BIA disapproved it saying, ‘We don't think it makes sense that you could adopt somebody into membership who doesn't meet the membership requirements. That's not what that section is intended to allow even though you, tribe, think that's what it's intended to allow.'

So we appealed that decision, that disapproval to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals and argued, ‘Look, if you have to meet the membership criteria to be adopted into membership, then what does adoption mean? It's a completely meaningless term.' The IBIA [Interior Board of Indian Appeals] ended up agreeing with the Community's interpretation and what they actually ruled was, ‘We don't think that the Bureau's reading is unreasonable, but we also don't think that the Community's reading is unreasonable. But because the Community's reasoning...the Community's interpretation is reasonable and it's their constitution, the Bureau should have deferred to their interpretation of their own constitution,' and so the IBIA directed the area director to approve the ordinance and that's what happened.

And I would love to say that that's the end of the story, but it was not the end of the story because of course that decision was appealed to the IBIA and it ultimately got dismissed just because it was an individual tribal member who had appealed it and you don't have standing in the IBIA to appeal if you're just an individual member as opposed to the government. But that ultimately led to federal litigation and for reasons that I won't go into, the Community ended up having to pass another adoption ordinance that essentially did the same thing but they fixed some perceived procedural irregularities and that ordinance was got approved by the Bureau, but it got challenged in tribal court and in federal court, but ultimately upheld in both of those courts.

And that's the way the Community's law has stood now for about I guess a little over 10 years they've had this adoption ordinance on the books, and many, many people have been adopted as members of the Community. And at first -- in the first couple of years after this -- there were a lot of hard feelings as you might imagine, from the people who really didn't want that quarter-blood requirement changed. They weren't happy that the Community leadership had taken this approach and it ended up that you'd see a lot of people applying for adoption who were the lineal descendants of the then current tribal leadership, but not very many people from other families in the Community, that is descendants of the groups who didn't want the constitution amendment applying for adoption.

But over time, that has changed and even though I don't have as direct a view of it now because I'm on the bench, it now seems that everyone in the Community has endorsed this and you see people getting adopted from all different families. And so it ultimately has worked for that community, for that community to change their membership criteria by ordinance instead of doing it through the more traditional route of doing it in terms of a constitutional amendment. I think that what the whole experience shows -- and I'm sure not telling you anything you don't know -- is that these issues are extraordinarily contentious and it just, particularly in a place like Shakopee, where you've got a tribe that makes per capita payments, you get in a lot of people who are litigious and so...there were well over a dozen I would say lawsuits altogether that were fought over these issues and it took a long time to heal. I don't know if there are questions that folks have about either of these procedures."

Audience member:

"My question has to do with enrollment criteria and of course the mechanisms that exist under our current constitution, which identifies an election process like you discussed. If a tribe does not follow that there an avenue or an option for a particular band of that tribe to have an election process that deviates from the constitution's election process to change a membership criteria, as an example?"

Vanya Hogen:

"I can't see your name tag [and] where you're from, but I assume you're from one of the MCT [Minnesota Chippewa Tribe] bands. And I wasn't here in the morning if there was discussion about this. And that is such a unique situation, but I guess my top-of-my-head lawyer response is that if you have an IRA-approved constitution that sets out a procedure, that's probably the procedure you're going to get stuck with, at least to have the outside world recognize the results of your constitution, of your amendments. How's that for a vague, lawyerly answer?"

Matthew Fletcher:

"So it's been a couple of decades removed from your experience trying to get amendments to your constitution approved or the tribe's constitution approved and then to have this ordinance approved, do you think that the [Department of the] Interior has changed? Is it more deferential to try now than it was in the ‘90s or would you still see the same nitpicky, ‘Well, this isn't what your constitution intended to provide so we disapprove'?"

Vanya Hogen:

"Well, I would like to think that at least, if nothing else, because of the IBIA precedents that came out of that decision, that the regional offices have been better, and certainly for Shakopee when they did have to adopt that new ordinance and it went up, there was no question but that it was going to be approved. I think it has probably gotten better. Although it kind of depends on...if you'd asked me that question six years ago I might not have said that, but depending on where the direction is coming from the top I think that can really make a difference, meaning that if we have a good Assistant Secretary that can make a difference. And I don't want to say...I got very caught up in this fight when I was litigating it for years and years and didn't think that what the Assistant Secretary was doing all the time was in the tribe's best interest, but I do understand when you this case in particular, there were a lot of people in the Community who did not think that the way the leadership was going about this was the best way to do it and they really thought that that quarter-blood requirement should stay in the constitution and that...and so I can see if I were... if I had been in the Assistant Secretary's shoes that I would want to try to make sure that every possible procedural safeguard was put in place before something...this kind of change was effectuated. I think that's it for the questions."

Colette Routel:

"Are there any other questions? Let's thank Vanya for speaking to us."


Vanya Hogen:

"Thank you."

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