From the Editor's Desk: Fear vs. Freedom in tribal sovereignty
Thursday, April 02 2015
Written by Alfred Walking Bull, The Circle Managing Editor,
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whats_new_-_walfred_walking_bull.jpgFear 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 mixed-tribal threshold.

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 them.

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.

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