Fear is a powerful motivator. It is
built with experience, it tells us when to avoid potential danger, it
keeps us safe and it can even keep us tied to our traditions and our
ways of life. However, fear can limit us not just in what we can
achieve, but even from the attempt at reform.
White Earth Nation Chairwoman Erma
Vizenor discussed the gag-order issued by the tribal council on
disseminating information on the nation’s constitutional reform
efforts. “The White Earth Tribal Council voted to censor the press
from printing any more information or updates on the Constitution of
the White Earth Nation.”
The Secretary/Treasurer for White
Earth Nation, Tara Mason, made her point succinctly and directly.
“White Earth is recognized by the federal government as a member of
the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, not as an independent nation. There’s
a chance we could lose our federal recognition and never get it back.
I will not jeopardize anyone’s federal recognition.”
This is not an unreasonable position
to take, given the three centuries of tumultuous history between the
American government and tribal leadership across the country.
However, it does call into question the whole premise on which, our
nations are currently organized.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934
created a framework for tribes around the country to organize
themselves – sometimes as they saw fit, other times, as prescribed
by local BIA officials – and the confusion over constitutional
adaptability and sovereignty began in earnest. It was the policy of
the United States government up to that point to exterminate tribes
as political and cultural entities; in 1934, the pivot turned to
assimilation by organization.
Tribal law experts and educators
generally agree that the templates used to organize tribal
governments in positions like Chair, Vice-Chair, Secretary,
Treasurer, Sergeants-at-Arms and council members looked more like
social clubs than sovereign governments. While membership – a term
implicit with connotations of dues and fees rather than citizenship –
was determined by the tribe, prescribed methods were geared toward
blood quantum, a way of excluding anyone below a mixed-race or even
So there are some serious historical
implications behind changing any tribal constitution.
However, a government’s authority
cannot rest entirely on rules written in stone, to be strictly
interpreted without regard to changing circumstances. A constitution
must be pliable and adaptable in very general ways, at the risk of
excluding societal and cultural progress. When that progress tests
the boundaries of those laws, the laws must be revisited, challenged
and changed to be of service to its people, not to oppress or limit
Even with constitutional changes,
certain principles are enshrined that reflect the values of that
particular tribal nation. The first among them must be freedom.
Whether that’s the freedom to practice our traditional spirituality
and religious practices without fear of persecution, the freedom to
discuss and reason or the freedom to express oneself openly. While
we, as Native people, defer to our own particular, traditional and
modern cultural practices to define those freedoms, we do respect
those choices. But when those freedoms are limited, based in fear and
done in haste, rather than through public discourse, thought out and
open to compromise, we lose the value of our democratic principles.
“When people in power in tribal
government suppress information it is no different than when North
Korea, or other countries run by dictators, suppress information …
Our constitution puts into place a system of checks and balances
which will prevent the kind of dictatorship we’ve seen within our
own council,” Vizenor said.
Strong, political wording, to be sure,
but in it is a hint of the potential precedents that can rippled
through tribal governments across the country. What is at stake is
the possibility of discussion, of inclusion and of consensus.
Throughout our own tribal and world histories, we have seen how
quashing dissent reflects more on those in power than those
dissenting. The strength of a tribal government isn’t rooted in how
it can control its citizenry, but in how well it can tolerate
criticism (informed or ignorant) and how willing it is to compromise
with its own people and come to consensus.
All of this is fine in the abstract
but how it applies to situations like the one in White Earth, Pine
Ridge or elsewhere will unfold through legal challenges, appeals and
government accountability. Or rather, those of us who are citizens of
tribal governments hope that it will. It calls to question how
seriously we take our tribal governments.
Often, throughout tribal communities,
councils and officials are the butts of jokes, targets of harsh
criticism or political retributions. But what’s at the center of the
constant legal ambiguities, constitutional flux and opposing
interpretations is how much sincerely is invested by those involved
in the politics of their tribe. If tribal politics are a vehicle for
personal acquisition and advancement, their reputations shine through
and are generally known to the public. But for those who desire an
honest discussion and debate on change, the foundation they stand on
is based on an earnest desire for citizens to hold themselves and
their governments to account.
While the various courts will
ultimately rule on who was correct, Vizenor for speaking her mind or
the council in quashing information, we now know that fear is the
logical crux of stifling expression. When fear wins the day and
freedoms are given up in place of security, a society – tribal or
otherwise – loses a part of its ethical sovereignty.