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Omdahl: It’s Time to Look at Reservation Governance

By Staff | Jul 23, 2015

North Dakota’s two United States senators have been taking a particular interest in the well-being and governance on Indian reservations, probably because of recent scandals in social services and foster care.

This is dangerous territory because as soon as non-Indians start talking about reservation problems the race card is played. Frank discussion is not necessarily racism, but calling it “racism” is one way to kill discussion.

Senator Heidi Heitkamp has maneuvered the creation of a commission to study problems on reservations. The Heitkamp commission can be effective if it focuses on specific areas, such as education, social welfare and governance.

Senator John Hoeven has gained approval of federal legislation that would require background checks on participants in Indian foster care programs. This is an attempt to protect children from abuses too common in foster care.

He has also pressed the federal government to do a better job of monitoring expenditures on reservations after the Government Accountability Office reported the misuse and loss of federal funds.

Senator Hoeven is right to be concerned about management and governance practices on reservations. The politics on some reservations are similar to the boss rule that prevailed in major American cities in the latter part of the 19th century – when favoritism and arbitrariness was the way of doing business.

We need only look at the way the Fighting Sioux logo issue was handled on Standing Rock. The chairman arbitrarily decided that he would not let the tribal members vote on the question. His decision killed the logo because without Standing Rock approval, the NCAA would not permit use of the logo.

This autocratic decision was made after the Spirit Lake Sioux near Devils Lake voted 2-to-1 in favor of keeping the logo. It is obvious that the Standing Rock chairman blocked the vote because he felt that his constituents would vote to keep the logo if they had the chance to vote.

This sort of autocratic action indicates a serious weakness in the rules of governance on reservations. Obviously, the tribal members who wanted to vote had no established course of action to overrule the decision of the chairman.

Because there are no established rules of procedure, tribal members can become victimized by their leadership. Governing decisions can made without regard to fairness or merit. Too many decisions can be made at the whim of one or two people at the top.

This brings us to the operation of the casinos on reservations. Casinos can exist only with approval of the governor. Unfortunately, we failed to require full transparency of casino operations as a condition for approval.

In view of the arbitrary nature that creeps into reservation governance, there is reason to wonder about the benefits of reservation gaming. Do all of the members get regular reports on receipt and disbursements of revenues? Are all tribal members given an equal opportunity to be employed in the casinos?

It is nave to assume that funds are handled scrupulously and fairly just because they are administered by Native Americans for Native Americans. The federal government monitors states, cities and counties, so it isn’t racism to ask for the same degree of integrity in reservation government and finances.

Hopefully, Senator Heitkamp’s commission will give the procedures of governance and transparency high priority. The rights of the rank-and-file Native Americans who are on the outside of the governing loop are being trampled too often by a governance system that is too loose and too arbitrary.

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