interview with Bobby Whitefeather
by Clara NiiSka
The invitation came by email, “come
visit” with Bobby Whitefeather at the Phillips Community Gathering at
Minneapolis American Indian Center on Friday, June 14th.
The event was something like a neighborhood
fair – cotton candy, hot dogs, games and political booths – and there
pretty good turnout.
was standing toward the end of the grassy field on the east side of the
Center, visiting, and this writer asked for an interview.
Whitefeather asked if his words would be
“twisted.” This writer showed him her
tape recorder and responded, “I
have never misquoted you, Mr. Whitefeather.”
With the tape recorder running, the
interview began by asking Whitefeather, “Maybe you could begin by
voters why they should vote for you.”
Whitefeather: Why they should vote for me?
Well, I think it’s, ah, for me, it’s obvious that, ah, we’ve been able
to get a
lot of things, ah, started in Red Lake over the last eight years. If you take a snapshot of what was there
eight years ago, and the amount of work that’s been done over the last
years by a lot of people, it’s remarkable, and when I visit with other
and tribal leaders, they look at us to see how we do things, and get
done, and they recognize that it’s many ingredients to the combination
make it successful, and strong leadership is one of them, that, you
you’ve gotta get out there and identify with the people, and make sure
know that you care about them, and everything associated with them. So, there’s, there’s still tremendous amount
of need yet, and ah, if we ever get to where everybody’s gonna be
I would like to see that, but there are so many, many unmet needs
there yet, that it’s gonna take a lot more effort by many people over
What to you are the most pressing needs?
What to you are the most pressing needs?
Whitefeather: To me, it’s always been jobs.
to create enough jobs so that
everybody would have a chance at one point, that, you know, if they
we’ll create jobs, and naturally, some of the jobs that have been
not attractive to everybody, and, ah, we’re doing what we can with what
have, and then underneath all of that too is the need for adequate
education. Education is so important,
not only to be able to get a job and retain a job, but to look beyond
reservation. There’s nothing wrong with
going out from the reservation and experiencing what the rest of the
to offer, in fact, that would enable people to grow, when they get that
exposure of the world off the reservation, that would only enhance
outlook, and they would say, yeah, there are some things that are
then, at the same time, also, to realize that yeah, we do have a lot of
positive things, at the same time there are many, many things that we
work on, and sometimes there are forces beyond our control that affect
it’s a lot of the behavior by the dominant society that trickles over
to us, or
spills over to us, and we become victims of that. Not
during the time it happens, but slowly, slowly, like right
now we are having the problems with drugs and violence, and we realize
a, um, a side effect from what goes on in the inner city.
Do you have any specific ways that you intend to address that? It seems like it’s getting worse.
specific way to address that is to make sure that the community comes
and have the courage to identify it, and say, yeah, ‘I know this is
going on, I
know this going on, and let’s do something to report it.’
Reporting it is the beginning, following up
and making sure that you have the courage to say, ‘yeah, this is what
and the community needs to stick together rather than expect a certain
accomplish everything, and I get to stand back. Everybody
has to get involved, because we all have a stake in our
homeland, to make sure that it’s safe, because at some point in time,
or another, it’s gonna affect us, whether it be through family, or some
some other event that’s not good for individuals’ family, extended
entire reservation as a whole, and trying to make sure that we have
coverage for our law enforcement, we have to support our law
have to support the courts, and along with that the tribal government
fully fund these agencies or these departments that are charged with
make our place better. So there are
many, many, many, many things to this – this entire issue of trying
make a safe
homeland that need to come together, and it’s gonna take leadership to
the forefront and say that, yeah, I will take the stance that I’m going
on the drug pushers and everyone else that’s causing the pain and
havoc on our reservation.
There have been some fairly credible allegations that some of the
people, or at
least certain people working in the law enforcement system are involved
drug trade. Is there any way that … or do you have any comment on that?
I’m not, um, of course, I’m not certain of any of that type of activity. I have also heard some allegations, and I
have instructed Department of Public Safety to look into those things,
there has been a court order issues that they look at some – I think
were doing was, wanted to make sure that chain of custody on evidence
adequately followed through, and the Public Safety Commission is
making sure that those kind of things don’t happen.
Who’s in charge of that?
Public Safety Commission?
guy named Mickey Fairbanks, he’s the chairman of that.
And again, it’s going to take someone that
knows what is going on, to come forward and have the courage to say,
this is what’s going on, this is what’s going on.’
If we don’t have anybody that has first hand
we’re not going to know. That’s what I
mean, whoever knows has to have the courage and say, ‘this is what’s
on.’ And that’s, sometimes, some of our
people get upset with me, because, they come to me and said, well,
being done about this, and nothing is being done about that,’ and I ask
‘well, have you reported it?’ And they
say, well, yeah, but, you know, nothing could be done, so I check on
say, yeah, they reported on it, but they failed to go through the whole
process. It’s just a matter of the
courage of the community coming together, that’s the bottom line I see.
You were talking about jobs. And it
seems like there’s a real difference between developing a
economic infrastructure, and either relying on outside funding or
maintaining a state-sanctioned monopoly on gambling.
Do you have any plans for developing a more enduring
infrastructure that’s not as dependent on the outside?
Well, naturally what we need to do is – and I’ve been talking about
this – is
to restructure our government so it’s more conducive to the
business. It’s – right now the
government we have in place is in charge of the economy, in charge of
health care, in charge of the jobs, ah, everything.
As tribal chairman, would you really be willing to back down on some of
Some of that what?
Power? Definitely. Definitely.
I’ve always said that, I’ve always said that, that the office of the
is only as good as you use it, and the office of the chairman has such
potential for abuse
yes, it does
depending on who’s there.
Yes it does.
does. And, I want to do away with that. I
want to have more balance in government.
What specific ideas – do you have some specific ideas that you’re ready
about at this point?
Well, sure. And I talked about it in
1988 election, about examining our constitution
seeing, you know, where are the weaknesses, where are the strong
having a group come together and start to take a look at ’em, take it
the community, and say, you know, what do you think about this, what do
think about this? And, have maybe a
two-year process. I did have money in
the budget two years ago. Ah, however,
what I saw was happening, was in our tribe there was some internal
that, that I was trying to make sure that we didn’t get fractured and
drift, because of the other two officers in the tribe, that they were
conflict, and I was in the middle there, trying to make sure that we
maintaining a steady course, and of course making sure that the council
whole also had some input in some of the decisions that we were making,
point in time I felt, and my grandpa always told me that you’ll know
time is right to do something. It
wasn’t right to, the time wasn’t right to examine the constitution at
time, because of this internal conflict, because it would become a side
and it wouldn’t be as important as it should be. But,
during this campaign, from many, many people I have heard
that it’s time that we take a look at restructuring our form of
government. I have been a proponent of
that for a long, long time.
But, you don’t have any specific ideas that you want to lay out at this
What I would like to see is some version of separation of powers.
Where there would be an executive branch, a legislative branch, and a
branch. Now whether we want to have
another branch there, of, of blending in our culture and our
traditions, is something
that I would like the people to discuss, because we have an advisory
hereditary chiefs right now, that really do not have a function, but,
more of a symbolic situation for them.
A lot of people say that they get paid to nod their head, yeah.
Well, I ask them a question, you know, what do you think, chiefs, what
think, and I think it’s time that they also have some responsibility
position and their title, and, ah, it’s not a very pleasant experience
asked from time to time to interfere in the courts.
That’s something I stay away from, I, I – what I say
I’ll check it out, I’ll ask a question, but I’m not going to ask a
officer to change their mind or anything. I’d
never do that.
But you would sign an order removing somebody from a courtroom without
bothering to find out what’s happening.
Well, on the constitution, in the executive power of the chairman
that now. Now whether the change in the
constitution will require some other process that will take place, I
no objection to that.
It seems to me as though there’s a difference between having a
of power ‘on the books,’ and using it wisely.
Yeah, exactly, exactly. And there is
some vagueness in our constitution about that, and it’s, it’s uh,
presents itself for some opportunities for abuse.
It certainly does, yeah. And, it’s like
– to my knowledge you have removed four or five people during your
chairman, and most of them – at least two other people besides myself –
involved in court processes, and what you did is simply remove the
factor, dissenting people.
constitution requires me to ensure the safety, the health, and the
of the tribal member. If there is a
group of tribal members that come to me and say, this person, who is
member of the tribe, is interfering in our well-being, can you do, do
about it. So, I explain to them that
there is a process that takes place, and if all else fails, and no
takes place, and no acceptance of any terms, and my responsibility is
members, the protection of our homeland. And,
if it requires removing someone that a family – it’s
not me that
makes a declaration of undesirability, it’s the tribal members that
come to me
and say, ‘we do not want this person on our homeland.’
My obligation, my legal obligation is to the
tribal members, and that’s what I actually do.
Okay, in my own case, to my knowledge, I had no idea that there was any
complaint against me … and I simply went to [probate] court and was
order of removal, no trial, no nothing, no questions asked, nobody ever
asked me what my side of the story was. And
I would say that that, in my understanding, is a
example of abuse of power.
it wasn’t my abuse. If there was any
abuse that you allege take place, it was perhaps the family not
your forum. And, legally, according to
the constitution, you have no legal standing ...
So you are saying that – and this is a serious issue not just in terms
own perspective, but in terms of, at this point, there’s a fairly
movement to get full recognition of tribal court hearings.
And in a tribal court where non-members have
zero rights, and it’s very clearly prejudiced … there’s a reasonable
non-members on Red Lake and any other reservation …
Right, right …
… who are married in …
… who have lived there for years, and who intend to make it their home …
… and who aren’t causing trouble,
… and I wasn’t.
right, I know that
And, to say, we reserve the right to exercise these kinds of civil
abuses not only within our own boundaries, but for tribal court
are going to cross over the line into the state of Minnesota, I think
it could be. And, it goes both ways,
Okay, what’s the other side?
other side of it is that we have the potential of non-Indians coming on
reservation and conducting criminal activity, to a level that doesn’t
the Major Crimes Act, and we can’t do nothing – anything about it. And also, now the Supreme Court is – has
decided – cases where non-member Indians also we do not have
The state – there is some legal precedent that the state does.
Well, well not really.
[State jurisdiction at] Red Lake, yes
… Red … Red … Red Lake
versus Holthusen [N.W.2d 180; 1962].
I’m not familiar with that.
And plus, the recent Supreme Court decision … there was a recent
that supported the same thing.
Yeah, that’s it. [Nevada v Hicks, 533 U.S. 353; 2001]
Where the state has a certain amount of jurisdiction, and whether or
state chooses to exercise it …
is a political question
and, to say that ex parte removal without even giving the party
removed, from a
courtroom for example, is a viable form of due process that you expect
state and federal courts to recognize …
Yeah, it’s expected, but it’s not required.
But I’m saying that
what’s in the works right now a state rule of court requiring it.
not familiar with that.
I was just at a hearing about three weeks ago.
Yeah, I’m not aware of that, but my position as tribal chairman is that
to defend homeland, and defend the sovereignty from intrusion by people
have no legal standing on the reservation, that’s my obligation.
It seems as though there are some fairly complicated issues underneath
Yeah, there are.
One of them is tribal
One of them is, especially, tribal enrollment for members whose
and, that particular issue is going to become more and more problematic
problematic, yes, yes, there’s more and more … like that
and, it seems as though having one standard of fairness for members –
some instances a brother or … sister is … enrolled and her younger
I mean, I could give you some examples.
Yeah. Well, that’s a sovereign right of
any tribe to determine who belongs, yeah, so …
[interview interrupted by
conversation with a
young woman who walked up to the interview with her baby, arranged to
Whitefeather “back by the table”]
Okay, so you’re talking about separation of powers, and you’re saying
those kinds of civil rights abuses would be lessened with some kind of
restructuring of the government, is what you’re saying?
I’m not saying, I’m not saying anything about civil right abuses going
on. What I’m saying is that a different
government will hopefully create a better balance of how we do business.
And, I look at it this way, is that – the way we have our government
gives the government everything to do about the daily lives of all our
Oh, it’s really concentrated, yeah
is, it is
it’s a terrible concentration of power
and, what happens is that depending on who has the most influence,
be by size of family or other influence, that ability to stay in power
with a certain group, it almost perpetuates itself, and that division
haves and the have-nots creates continuous dissention
I absolutely agree with you about that, yeah.
And, it becomes almost generational, in fact it probably has. And so that form of government, and that way
of putting our society together is not conducive to the way that the
that I was taught by my grandparents is that we’re a communal family,
supposed to help each other, not one group taking the largesse of
there is out there, and just shutting everybody out, that’s not the way
works, not supposed to be the way it works. But
the way our government’s set up now, it just
encourages that type of
structure, and what I want to do is try to create more of a balance,
the balance of governing will hopefully, from one end to the other –
now, I’ll give you an example. For me,
sometimes it’s difficult to advance my agenda as far as the way I see
moving. Okay, now –
You’ve had eight years to sort-of do this, so yeah,
Well, okay, now, yeah, and it’s a perfect example of sometimes why I
run into a
wall, is because the council gives me the people that I have to work
my administration. They do the hiring.
so, sometimes if, if the person that’s hired has a different agenda and
political, here I am trying to move the tribe, and I’ve got an
maybe several individuals, actually maybe working against me, or being
passive that they’re not allowing things to move, and so here I am
work with individuals that perhaps are not necessarily being what I
want to try
to do, and we sort of kind of plod along as best we can.
Now, the way I see a compromise of sorts is
that, like it’s done, if I want to hire someone that’s going to be my
of this and that, I take that person’s name to the legislature and say,
this is the person I would like to work with
legislature looks at the person and say, well, we don’t think that
right, so I go grab another one, another one, until we agree, and then
hopefully a better working relationship that, that person that I work
would move on a better agenda, and so I would say to the legislature,
this is what I like to do, this is the budget I like to work under, and
submit it to the legislature, they take a look at it, well, chairman,
need this, you don’t need that, you need to go after this, well, I need
and I need this, and it comes to a negotiation of working within the
system that we can.
So, you’re essentially talking about splitting the council into an
branch and a legislative branch?
And what would you do about the court system?
court system? Um, well, I think I would
like a constitutional convention committee to hear from the membership
what that would look like. Uh, it
doesn’t necessarily have to be an elected body. It
could be of the same process of where the executive branch recommends
a judicial person, brings them before the legislature for confirmation
it down, and eventually we agree. And
then, at that point, give that judicial branch independence, by
where no one can come to me and say, ‘hey chairman, can you call that
reverse the decision?’ I will be able
to say, the constitution forbids me to do that. So,
in a sense the judicial branch will operate
independently. Ah, what needs to be
examined about that is how are we going to guarantee the impartiality
judicial branch? That’s gonna be the
big question. Now maybe what needs to
happen is some type of a traditional type of a judicial system as a
that, ah, I don’t know, I’d be interested to hear from the members of
their thoughts on there … because, when looking at the judicial system,
always a winner and a looser, there’s hardly ever anything in between
where the party that’s victimized doesn’t get any type of restitution
even get some kind of – some satisfaction of the wrong that was done to
person. You either, you get it, or you
don’t, what I’d like to see is some, some medium where the victim does
satisfaction out of this and then, the perpetrator also has to pay some
penalty where, y’know, everybody’s okay, and it doesn’t become a
bitter thing, that yen.
Well, y’know, like for example Jawnie
was married to Donald
[Jr.], there was – and it is fairly clear – she’s a non-member, she’s
at Leech Lake
And it’s fairly clear that there was a fair degree of influence
the way that the [tribal] court process stripped her of her rights to
child. And, I don’t know what you’re
going to do about that, because the alternative is that members marry
but other members, and you’re going to have a really incestuous
resent that, that comment, ah
Well, I’m just saying that if – either you have a way of – like for
with Jawnie Hough, like for example a number of other people
that have married in to the community, and aren’t members.
If – unless there is some way of somehow
ensuring that they have some reasonable sorts of rights
maybe not the full rights of members, but reasonable rights. You know, I talked to an attorney that was
involved in that case, and they, the attorney, essentially said, ‘if
a Red Laker, tough.’
not familiar with that case at all, so
and then, and I do have some vague knowledge of it, and I’m not sure
details, but if it’s a matter of who has jurisdiction over this
all of that is, is something that I don’t know about, I mean, in fact I
I’m trying to stay at arms length from the court and say, ‘you guys
decision based on what you know,’ I mean, I’m not no judge
mean, my responsibility is chairman of the tribe and doing what I know
from that perspective.
And I suppose what I was asking you, more, is that there’s – you know,
community, not [just] Red Lake but any community, cannot simply marry
themselves generation after generation after generation, they get into
and in the old way what people have told me is that you’re not supposed
marry even your seventh cousin, I mean. This
is what they told me.
don’t know how that works.
but, you know, but even twenty years ago, people were practicing a
fairly – you
know, you didn’t marry your second cousin unless you were, you know,
Catholic on the other side of the lake or something
and, so there are going to be non-members marrying in
and there are going to be increasing issues of blood quantum
yeah, I understand all that
and there are going to be issues of
a society in which some people have absolutely no rights, and in terms
you – you know, you’re talking about addressing some of these problems,
wondering what you’re going to do about that one, if you’ve had any
I haven’t had any thoughts about that at all.
no. Not at all. What
I want to do is try to get some
stability for the tribe so that we can at least advance towards where
people will get to some comfort
Where, my dream is to have it so that no one is poor any more, that’s
would like to see, that’s about all.
[personal conversation between
and the young
Do you have any last comments? I mean,
one of the things that you’re – that – I’m certainly not doing it but
certainly heard it, is that a fair bit of the responsibility for what
with Dan King, people are saying, well, it happened on Bobby’s watch,
didn’t you do more at the time? I mean,
that’s a question that’s come up.
Well, here’s the situation with Dan King. My
way of governance is to delegate, ah, functions and
duties as I see
that particular person is able to do it. I
put him in charge of that expansion out there, with the
that he, as an elected official, had an obligation to do what’s right
treasurer’s office. And, the people
voted him in, and I used that as a measure of trust and judgment, that
people voted him in.
so, when he took that project, I was able to monitor it to the extent
he was telling me. You have to have a
certain amount of trust and faith in people that are elected. What he didn’t do, was he didn’t tell us –
he actually, was a practice of non-disclosure. Even
though we asked, time and again, and, I must say he
untruthful to us about what was happening
until it was too late. And then, we
started to see some things rise to the top that caused some concern. Ah, fortunately, we were able to look at the
situation before it really got out of hand, ah, but my eventual
this thing was that the group went, went beyond what was authorized by
board, for the sake of well, let’s do it while we’re at it, and then
with it later.
That’s the way I looked at it, and he was not alone.
I mean, there was three other council members that
that committee, that I trusted to do the project.
And, it seems clear, too, that there’s – the tribal council controls
everything, I mean, you know that as well as I do
Well, yeah, too much!
much, it controls too much. That’s why
we gotta have more balance, we have to have more, more systems where
would be other controls, because then if you have a separation of
executive branch would be accountable to the legislative branch, the
branch would be accountable to the executive branch, and then the
would be right there to interpret whether what we’re doing is within,
the parameters of the constitution. Okay? I gotta go.
Well, thank you.
and Bylaws of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians Minnesota
Duties of Officers
Section 1. Chairman.
He shall preside at all regular and special meetings. He shall
vote only in the case of a tie. He shall see that all resolutions
and ordinances of the Tribal Council are carried into effect. He
shall exercise general supervision of all other officers and employees
and see that their respective duties are performed.
Sec. 2. Secretary.
He shall keep the minutes at the principal office of the Tribal Council
of all meetings of the Tribal Council. He shall keep the tribal
roll, showing all changes therein as required by this Constitution or
ordinances duly approved by the Tribal Council. He shall attend
to all correspondence, distribution of tribal information or other
duties incidental to his office including the reproduction of minutes,
resolutions and ordinances and see to their distribution within the
deadlines, if there be deadlines.
Sec. 3. Treasurer.
He shall keep and maintain adequate and correct accounts of the
properties and business transactions of the Tribal Council. He
shall have care and custody of the funds and valuables of the Tribal
Council and deposit same in the name of and to the credit of the Red
Lake Band with such depositors as the Tribal Council may direct and
which are acceptable to the Area Director [of the B.I.A.].
Disburse funds of the Tribal Council as may be ordered by the Tribal
Council, taking proper signed invoices, vouchers and other recordable
data. Render to the Tribal Council a monthly statement and report
of all his transactions and render also an annual financial statement
in the form and with the detail required by the Tribal Council.