Helping Our People Overcome Economic & Social Disadvantage
308 N. Piegan, Browning, MT
NOTE: This webpage and the following essay is from 2013 and outdated. It describes conditions that have improved somewhat since the installation of a new Tribal Council in July 2014. However the latter half of this essay may be useful in order for non-Indians to understand how tribes work. We also leave this page live as a reminder of what happened to our tribe and must never be allowed to happen again.
The Blackfeet Tribe has been around for 15,000 years. We expect we will be around for another 15,000 years. So we can weather anything, including all the bad stuff people have been reading in the news and asking us about. Besides, of our 17,000 members, less than 50 people are causing all the problems while the rest of us shake our heads in disbelief. It's amazing how much trouble a few Blackfeet can stir up!
Tribal politics and Tribal Council infighting cause a lot of problems on pretty much every Indian reservation. That's why American Indian Partnership operates completely independent from Tribal government: So we can carry out our mission through good times or bad.
Let's talk for a minute about all the headlines and bad press the Blackfeet Tribe has been making coast to coast. Even our oldest elders can't remember it being this bad: a Tribal Council split into two warring factions resulting in chaos, governmental dysfunction and meltdown, mass firings, numerous federal indictments involving many people and many millions of dollars, a Tribal Councilman who is also a state senator caught driving drunk but claiming the laws he helps make somehow don't apply to him, feds stepping in to charge him with DUI, attempted political coups, protests in the streets and lots of arrests.
And worse, with Christmas coming up, +-800 Tribal employees, countless vendors, and 17,300 per capitas are not being paid because of Tribal Council disagreements over who can sign checks.
Indian reservations are unusually closed communities, inscrutable and confusing to outsiders. So here's a little clarity. Here on the reservation, when we say "The Tribe" we mean one of two things, depending on the context. 1. Either the entire Tribe with 17,300 enrolled members, or 2. The Tribal Government which is headed by the Tribal Council. So, for example, if someone says "I am going up to the Tribe to talk to Land" that means they are going to the Tribal government offices. Or if talking about a new Tribal ordinance: "That's good for the Tribe" they mean all 17,300 members. If one is talking about the Tribal government it is clearer to refer to it as the Blackfeet Nation, which by the way is what their letterhead and checks read. The term Blackfeet Nation is also commonly used to refer to the land within the reservation boundaries, the area where the Blackfeet Tribe has sovereignty.
To be clear, The American Indian Partnership is located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation / on the Blackfeet Nation, and our staff and volunteers are all Indians, mostly Blackfeet. But neither we nor our donors want anything to do with, or to get caught up in, the sort of problems and dysfunction going on up at the Tribal government offices.
So when we say we are closely connected to, and provide services to the Blackfeet Tribe (as well as other tribes), we are referring to our entire 17,000 member Tribe, not the Tribal government. btw, About half of our Tribal members live on our reservation (about 8,500). They are our primary concern since most of our projects and work takes place on reservations.
It is useful to understand how the Blackfeet Tribe really works. Yes, things are bad –really bad-- for those reliant on Tribal government. But for those that live and operate disconnected from Tribal government, life goes on and things aren't that much different than before (except it’s a little like walking unscathed across the Coliseum floor while gladiatorial games are underway all around you.)
The Tribal Council is akin to a Town Council that oversees local government. That’s pretty much all it is. Contrary to Dances with Wolves imagery, the Tribal Council is not a paternal body that guides the Tribe in any cultural, societal, or spiritual way: that is the job of our numerous societies and other spiritual, cultural, and community groups and people.
The reason the Tribal Council has so much power, despite being the equivalent of a Town Council, is that unlike every place else in America that has prospered there is no viable private sector economy here. Almost everywhere else in America, local economic activity –industry, commerce, local businesses—generates taxes for a local government that is right sized for the amount of local economic activity. But on our reservation there is almost no private industry and commerce so most of the money comes from over the horizon in the form of federal funding: Essentially the U.S. government pays Indians to govern themselves, which as everyone can see is a double edged sword.
And the Tribal Council controls the federal money that funds those jobs and a lot of other things here, too. And that is why the Tribal Council has so much power and can make life good or bad here. If we had a viable private sector economy like any prosperous town, county, or state, then the Tribal Council would indeed be just a local Board of Directors-type body with limited visibility and relevance and just a few routine, bureaucratic duties to perform.
The bottom line is that American Indian Partnership is proud to be associated with the Blackfeet Tribe (meaning the entire 17,300 member tribe), and we Indians that operate it are proud to be Blackfeet. But in these times no Blackfeet Tribal member is proud of the Blackfeet Tribal Government and we at the American Indian Partnership cannot be associated with it for all the obvious business, credibility, operational, and reputational reasons.
A 19th century prolific peripatetic chronicler of Indian tribes commented on the Blackfeet: “They are not like any other tribe I know. They have to fight, and if they can’t find an outside foe to do battle with, they will fight with each other. Then the next day they act like nothing happened.”
So unrest in our home is nothing new. It'll be alright.
( from November 2013 )
The Blackfeet keep making headlines for all the wrong reasons