Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Blackfeet embrace checks and balances

A report in today's Great Falls Tribune indicates that members of the Blackfeet Tribe, in addition to voting out a tribal chairman, approved a new constitution that for the first time includes separations of power and checks and balances. Read all about it here: "Voters . . . . passed a referendum to restructure the tribe's constitution, adding executive, legislative, judicial, traditional and ethical branches to its constitution,” reports The Tribune. “Supporters previously said these checks and balances would limit the amount of power the Tribal Business Council holds, which could give the tribe a stronger infrastructure.”

That checks and balances were lacking in tribal constitutions – and that tribes have constitutions separate from the U.S. Constitution – might come as a surprise to many non-Indians. But the consequences of vesting too much power in tribal councils have been all-too-real for many American Indians. It has led to corruption, injustice and dysfunctional governance on many reservations, compounding the tragedies and injustices that have befallen Indians. Non-Indians have largely turned a blind eye to this situation, as they turn a blind eye to much of what takes place on reservations.

How do I know? Because I wrote about the effort to re-write tribal constitutions when I worked at The Washington Times – -- and over the years had other opportunities to revisit related issues as a journalist and editorial writer. That doesn’t make me an expert. But as an informed observer, I can’t help but see this as a major step ahead for the tribe.

No one believes that simply writing safeguards against concentrated power into tribal constitutions will fix everything that’s broken in Indian Country. But just as checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution have served as a bulwark against concentrations of power in the federal government, separating powers in tribal constitutions will perhaps do the same on the reservations. Assuming, of course, that rank-and-file Indians demand that the new guidelines be followed and enforced.

Now, we can only hope that happens.

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