Red Lake tribal council plans governmental reorganization
by Clara NiiSka<>In the context of discussing personnel issues at their regular December 2002 meeting, the Red Lake tribal council decided that the present organization of Red Lake tribal government is not working effectively, and that tribal government “needed an overhaul,” according to Press/ON publisher Bill Lawrence, who attended the meeting. “The tribal council has to cope with the chaos remaining from [former treasurer Dan] King’s mismanagement and the legacy of the ‘fab four’s’ administration,” he said.
“It has to be restructured based upon the actual needs of the tribe, and what the tribe can afford,” one of the committee members told Press/ON. “We are going to have to tighten our belts because of the heavy casino debt load. We realize that the state is dealing with a budget shortfall, which will impact funding for tribes. The federal government is also facing anticipated deficits, which will force a reduction in Indian program spending. Governmental priorities, including the war on terrorism and military buildup in the Middle East and Far East, are also going to cut deeply into appropriations for Indian tribes.” Governmental reorganization will enable Red Lake tribal government to be more efficient with tribal programming funds, the committee member explained, as well as increasing the tribal government’s accountability and clarifying governmental responsibility.
The present organization of the tribal council itself is mandated by the Red Lake Constitution and Bylaws, adopted October 15, 1958 (and amended by tribal election on May 22, 1974 and May 23, 1984). Article IV of that constitution requires that there be “8 district representatives and 3 officers,” along with a seven-chief advisory council.
Under the 1958 constitution, there can be no separation of powers in Red Lake tribal government. Article VI, delineating ‘governmental authorities,’ centralizes political power in the tribal council, and Article VII puts the tribal council in control of tribal funds and authorizes it to “engage in any business that will further the economic well-being of the members of the Red Lake Band.”
In mid-1930s, when the BIA put together the ‘boilerplate’ which was used as model for Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) tribal constitutions throughout Indian country – including the present constitution at Red Lake – almost all of the real political power on reservations was held by the Bureau, and some scholars of Indian tribal government have argued that the BIA deliberately designed tribal governments that were tightly centralized and thus relatively easy for the federal government to control.
The Indian Self-Determination And Education Assistance Act, Public Law 93-638, was enacted by U.S. Congress in 1975, and has transformed tribal governments by directing the Secretary of the Interior, “upon the request of any Indian tribe by tribal resolution, to enter into a self-determination contract or contracts with a tribal organization to plan, conduct, and administer programs or portions thereof, including construction programs” (Sec. 450f.-Self-determination contracts). What’s happened on most reservations, including Red Lake, is that tribal government has grown a sizeable ad hoc bureaucracy in response to the availability of federal funding for specific programs and the federal administrative requirements mandated by PL 638 contracts or the Congressional legislation creating the programs. Also, particularly on isolated rural reservations with few other prospects for employment, ‘creating jobs’ for tribal members in program administration has sometimes been perceived as a viable form of “economic development.”
An obsolete (and somewhat hypothetical) chart diagramming the Red Lake Band’s “Governmental Structure” shows seven departments under the direct administration of individual tribal council officers, as well as three boards of directors and a commission supervised by the tribal council as a whole and running a variety of enterprises, as well as the police, housing and the nursing home. The chart also shows the tribal council as overseeing the tribal administrator (supervising two divisions and thirteen departments) and the tribal administrative officer (supervising two divisions and sixteen programs). The tribal government’s responsibility to tribal members is dissipated and diffuse, and there is no organizational provision for enforcing fiscal accountability. An inadequately defined and relatively unaccountable government labyrinth is fertile ground for ‘politics of the personal,’ as well as financial mismanagement.
Although the possibilities for governmental reorganization at Red Lake are constrained by the band’s financial problems, as well as by the tribal constitution, federal programming mandates, and tribal politics, the committee member was optimistic about making significant improvements at Red Lake.
The present effort may by the first time that thoughtful structural changes to the Red Lake Band’s government have been initiated by the tribal council.
The federal government has long exerted controlling influence on the organization of Red Lake tribal government. Almost as soon as Minnesota Territory was created by Congress, U.S. Major Samuel Woods reconnoitered on behalf of Secretary of War. Woods was acting as an advance man for treaty-making expeditions, including those involving Red Lake. In his report to Congress (Ex. Doc. No. 51, House of Representatives, 31st Congress, 1st Session), Woods described his trip to Pembina: “They could not agree about their chiefs and requested me to appoint them … I told them that there were three men, whose names I gave them, that had been highly recommended to me as suitable men for chiefs. ... They came back the next day in a body, and informed me that they had agreed upon the men I had nominated to them.” According to Woods, the chiefs were “selected, with my assistance.” He added, “I presented these chiefs with appointments, in writing, dated the 24th of August, '49, and gave each of them a medal.” Woods also defined the powers of the ‘tribal government’ that he had created: “I told the chief what were their duties, and also the sub-chiefs.”
Major Woods also “organized” the French Métis people he identified as “half-breeds.” He wrote, “I urged them to organize themselves into a band under a council or chiefs, invested with ample authority to act in their name, in all matters which might arise to affect their interests.”<>The organization and leadership of subsequent governments at Red Lake, including both the “seven chiefs” recognized by the U.S. in 1889 and Peter Graves’s General Council (formally organized under a 1918 constitution), were also strongly influenced by the U.S. Government.
The conflict at Red Lake was still festering in 1944, when Mark Burns, an attorney working as one of the BIA’s Indian Reorganization Act coordinators, recommended delaying the Bureau’s intended changes in tribal organization until after the end of World War II. Shortly thereafter, the BIA commissioner’s office advised Red Lake superintendent Tom White that, “we believe it would be inadvisable at this time to precipitate a factional fight over the adoption of a new constitution and by-laws.”
After the death of Joe Graves, who had succeeded his father as secretary-treasurer of the General Council, the Secretary of the Interior appointed a “special committee” of white experts to plan governmental reorganization at Red Lake. In March 1958, the BIA withdrew its recognition of the Red Lake General Council, and the BIA’s reorganization experts recommended six specific steps intended to create a “newly constituted government.” Seven months later the current constitution was adopted at Red Lake.