Interior Appeals Board upholds much needed changes to TAT constitution


            In theory, the Three Affiliated Tribes Business Council should revere our tribal constitution because it’s one of the most important documents for our people, right next to the Fort Laramie Treaty.

Our reality, however, is that the TAT Constitution is outdated in a way that hurts our people. For example, it grants legislative and judicial sovereign authority to the Tribal Business Council. This allows the council to act as jury and judge, creating a stranglehold on meaningful community participation and decision making.

The TAT Constitution also needs to better reflect the cultural, moral and ethical values of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people.

This said, some big changes lie ahead for the TAT Tribal Business Council and, hopefully, will bring change for the betterment of our nation. On Sept. 15, 2015 an administrative judge upheld a July 30, 2013 certified secretarial election in which MHA Nation citizens voted to amend the tribal constitution.

The Hudson v. Great Plains Regional Director, Bureau of Indian Affairs appeal sought to overturn an election in which the majority of MHA voters agreed to adopt two new constitutional amendments.

With the recent approval, voters effectively changed Article III of the TAT Constitution. Amendment 1 now calls for the election of two representatives from each segment. Voters chose to double the number of councilman from each segment from one to two.

Amendment 2 now changes Article V. MHA citizens said they want a say in who fills vacancies on the council in the case of resignation, death, felons, or permanent removal from the reservation. Formerly, the TAT Tribal Business Council had full authority to fill vacancies. A second change in Article V gives voters an opportunity to recall councilmen.

The Hudson appeal argued there were “legal deficiencies, inconsistencies, and concerns,” with the secretarial election in which 510 of 1,249 registered voters were able to change the constitution on a reservation with 9,270 voting age, tribal members. Voter turnout represented “a mere 5.5 percent” of eligible voters, argued Hudson.

Administrative judges for the Board of Appeals ruled that all laws were adhered to in the secretarial election, which requires at least 30 percent of qualified voters cast a ballot. The threshold requirement needed to meet that percentage was 375 voters.

I was among the 510 people who voted. I opposed the amendment to double the size of the Tribal Business Council. I didn’t like the unknowns. How much would it cost? Even now that it passed, I still have questions: Instead of a $12 million annual 2015 budget per segment-councilman, will they want $24 million in the 2016 budget?

After a two-year delay caused by the Hudson appeal, I’ve had a chance to change my mind about representation. I am now glad the amendment was upheld. Too much power exists in the hands of too few. I’ve had two years to witness council domination of executive, legislative and judicial decisions.

Imagine if President Obama controlled not only his executive branch, but also Congress and the Supreme Court. The United States would be filled with disenfranchised and apathetic voters, much like the existing state of politics here on Fort Berthold.

But those checks and balances are written into the U.S. Constitution. They do not exist in the TAT Constitution, which leaves seven councilmen to engage in controlling, cavalier, power-drunk politics. The rest of us are left with an unsettling choice: Do we kiss the rings?

This sort of politics has made it difficult to change the TAT Constitution. If not for the federal secretarial election that was just affirmed by the appeals board, we would all still be complaining about government-as-usual.

Today, the secretarial election process is working for us, thanks to the hard won efforts of Donna Morgan, Ramona Two Shields and the late Titus Hall – all three led the reform process through the Constitutional Review Committee.

Surveys by the committee show MHA people not only wanted a say in representation, vacancies and recall, they also want separation of powers in tribal government.

Authors of “Rebuilding Native Nations” state: “A constitution is a fundamental framework that empowers the people to state who they are, define how they will make community decisions, choose their direction, solve their disputes and stay a people.”

            We can do all this by being engaged voters and participating in the continued process of constitutional reform

Jodi Rave Spotted Bear is a Harvard University Nieman Fellow. She’s the recipient of national awards and honors for news and opinion writing, including the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest, Native American Journalists Association, Montana Newspaper Association, Columbia University School of Journalism and the University of Nebraska. She was also awarded the Paul D. Savanuck Military Print Journalist of the Year Award.