Great Falls Tribune

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) _ Powwow is a time for the tribe to reunite. Families come together, pausing to enjoy traditional song and dance while rekindling old friendships and building new ones.

It is entirely fitting that during the 63rd annual North American Indian Days, the Piikuni people _ the Blackfeet _ should look forward to the weeks and months ahead with prayers for greater unity and prosperity for their people, all with a watchful eye.

On Thursday, five new members of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Committee were sworn into office. Three of these new council members, Harry Barnes, Iliff “Scott” Kipp and Tyson Running Wolf, took over as leaders of the council’s powerful executive committee.

There is widespread hope in Browning that the change in leadership will bring to a close one of the most tumultuous periods in recent Blackfeet history.

“We’ve been drug through the mud quite a bit these last few years,” Blackfeet tribal member John Arcand said. “Let’s hope they find a solution to get us out of the rut we’re in now, what we’ve just come out of. I think everybody’s ready for a change.”

The disintegration of tribal government on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation began almost as soon as the 2012 elections had ended. Less than seven weeks after four newly elected council members took their oath of office, rival factions had already voted independently to suspend, expel or appoint 10 different council members _ one more than there are seats on the nine-member tribal council.

There were near-daily angry protests outside tribal offices and alleged attempts to storm the council chambers. On Aug. 27, 2012, Chairman Willie Sharp Jr. declared a state of emergency and called off-reservation police units into Browning to prevent an escalation of violence.

But while the protests never escalated to the point of serious violence, tribal government on the Blackfeet Reservation never really returned to a complete state of normalcy either. It continued to fumble along for the next 22 months, with shifting political alliances and under debatable constitutional authority.

The state of emergency in Browning was never officially declared to have ended.

“We have either broken or strained every relationship that we as a tribe have,” said Barnes, shortly after being elected chairman. “This division has split the community, it has caused anger, it’s caused accusations. We need to go back and fix those relationships and dedicate whatever time and personalities each of us as leaders have to re-establishing and repairing those relationships.”

One day after taking charge of the Blackfeet Tribe’s highest-elected office, Barnes greeted tribal members as they lined up for a free lunch he was hosting on the edge of the powwow grounds. One after another, well-wishers thanked him for the hot dogs, chips and soda he was offering. Many extended their hands and offered words of encouragement for the tough tasks that lay before him and the rest of the tribal council.

“The single-most important relationship that we have to mend is the one amongst ourselves,” Barnes told the Great Falls Tribune ( in a moment away from his guests. “We need to re-establish a trust between the tribal members and their chosen leadership. We’ve got to put the war club down and pick up the hammer to go to work rebuilding our nation.”

The 63-year-old Browning business owner ran a campaign as a consensus builder and ended up receiving the most votes of any candidate in the tribe’s 2014 general election.

In the initial hours after taking his oath of office, Barnes’ leadership skills were put to the test.

Only hours before the 2014 inauguration ceremony, members of the Sharp faction of the divided 2012-2014 tribal council attempted to appoint unsuccessful candidate George Calf Tail to fill the council seat held by incumbent Earl Old Person. Three months earlier, these same council members had voted to oust Old Person for abandoning his duties on the council. The action was widely criticized as being unconstitutional.

Immediately following the inauguration, Barnes called the council together to address the issue. The newly constituted council quickly voted to rescind Calf Tail’s appointment and reinstate Old Person.

The second point of action at Thursday’s meeting was a council vote to appoint Tinsuwella Birdrattler to the office of treasurer. This action brought to an end a months-long impasse over the leadership of the tribe’s financial office.

In October 2013, the previous council underwent a final and near-catastrophic split between political factions led by Sharp, and another led by council secretary Roger Running Crane.

The divide left the council evenly split, with neither faction able to control enough votes to independently pass government resolutions.

When tribal employees loyal to the Running Crane faction refused to comply with Sharp’s demands, he had them summarily fired for insubordination.

In total, more than 60 tribal employees were removed from their jobs without benefit of the review process mandated by the tribe’s plan of operations.

These included Bird Rattler, who as the federally recognized treasurer of the tribe, was a mandatory signatory for all the tribe’s checks.

The Sharp faction attempted to appoint an alternative tribal secretary, but this action was not recognized by either the Bureau of Indian Affairs nor Native American Bank, the financial institution through which all the tribe’s financial obligations are paid.

The end result was that for extended periods of time in both December and then again in April, more than 800 tribal employees and dozens of the tribe’s creditors went unpaid.

The impact was devastating for many Blackfeet, who went weeks without paychecks.

Social welfare programs across the Blackfeet Reservation saw a sudden and dramatic increase in requests for food. Many Blackfeet people reported being unable to pay for basic necessities such as heat and electricity, and businesses in Browning saw an immediate and lasting impact on their revenues.

“My sales dropped 37.5 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, and they have been in the toilet and abysmal ever since,” said Barnes, who owns a construction supply business in Browning. “It affected other businesses, too, not just on the reservation but in Cut Bank. I know the businesses in Great Falls were affected, too. There were millions and millions of dollars not spent.”

According to Barnes, confirmation of Birdrattler as the sole and official treasurer for the council is the first step toward financial recovery.

“We need one person in charge, not two,” he asserted. “We don’t want there to be any more confusion.”

Most freshmen legislators are granted at least a short grace period in which they are given the opportunity to “learn the ropes” and immediate expectations are minimized. Not so for the five newly installed members of the BTBC, who look forward to their first full day on the job this coming Tuesday.

There are too many urgent issues, too many competing claims for any of them to get off to a leisurely start.

“We’ve all got to get our feet wet,” Barnes said. “Unfortunately, it’s like being in the deep end of a 12-foot pool and our feet are on the bottom.”

A major and immediate priority will be a complete and transparent audit of the tribe’s financial records.

“We have to count the money,” Barnes said simply. “It’s not to say that anybody’s a thief, but I’ve been in enough organizations to know that when there’s been a major change in leadership, that’s got to be the first thing on the agenda _ you count the money. I’m not going to be responsible for someone else’s sins, so I want to find out.”

Barnes said he hopes to appoint a tribal subcommittee to oversee that process as quickly as possible, and a preliminary report prepared and available to all Blackfeet tribal members in time for the first general council meeting in August.

“We want it to be clearly understood,” he said speaking for the five newly elected council members. “Our goal isn’t to find someone to hang. Our interest is to find out the financial condition of the Blackfeet people and their government.”

That goal could be hampered by an equally pressing concern over the status of so-called “ghost employees.”

When the Sharp faction fired the 60-plus tribal employees who refused to come to work or comply with that faction’s directives, those employees immediately took shelter with the alternate leadership supplied by the Running Crane faction. The Sharp faction simply hired additional people to replace them.

As a condition of cooperation in meeting tribal payroll, the Running Crane faction demanded that all tribal employees, including those serving in a duplicate capacity or “ghost employees” as they came to be called, would all receive paychecks. It was an “all or nothing” deal signed under protest by Sharp, but it was the only agreement that permitted anyone to get paid.

Over the past eight months, the additional wages paid to employ 60 duplicate positions has drained the tribe’s budget.

A conservative estimate would be that the split within the council has cost the Blackfeet people in excess of $1.6 million in additional wages, office supplies, equipment and utilities over the past eight months.

It’s a situation the current council has to address, and the resolution likely will be painful.

“It’s going to take the collective thoughts of all of us, and then we’re going to have to make some very hard decisions,” Barnes said of the ghost employee situation. “Prolonging it is not an option, because it furthers our potential payroll liability. There’s going to have to be some layoffs, that’s the reality of it. We simply can’t continue paying everyone.”

Further complicating the situation is the fact that the Blackfeet judicial system, which could be expected to adjudicate a large portion of the dismissal claims expected against the tribe, is itself in crisis.

In June, the BIA Regional Director Darryl LaCounte submitted a letter to Sharp stating that federal funding for the Blackfeet tribe’s judicial system would be withheld after July 1.

Among 18 reasons cited for the action were unqualified and unvetted judges, prosecutors and staff running an unstable system, a system that denies due process to those appearing before it and is overly influenced by tribal leaders.

“It’s going to be tough to clog our court system _ which is wobbly on its own _ and say, `Oh, by the way, you need to adjudicate these 60 cases and get back to us right away,”’ Barnes noted.

He was not immediately sure of the current status of federal payments to the tribal courts, but Barnes was fairly confident the BIA would be more lenient with the tribe given the recent change in government.

In response to written questions submitted to the BIA by the Great Falls Tribune, department spokeswoman Nedra Darling responded with the following.

“The BIA is monitoring the tribe’s progress and is prepared to provide technical assistance and training to help the tribe address the deficiencies that were identified in the recent Tribal Court contract review. A technical assistance plan has been developed in addition to the corrective action plan and both plans have been embraced by the tribe.

“The BIA has reexamined our position outlined in the July 1 letter regarding funding the Blackfeet Tribal Court and have determined that funding will continue to ensure a successful implementation of the corrective action plan.”

Despite the challenges before them, there remains a pervasive mood of hope bordering on optimism among the people of the Blackfeet Reservation.

“I’m really hoping this new council will look at our children, look at ways to help the families that are in need, create more jobs, create better stability,” said Blackfeet tribal member Jeri Gobert, stopping for something cold to drink at North American Indian Days. “I always had faith in our tribal council. I always prayed that they would come together and I knew that they would eventually.”

“The feeling and the sense is that something better is going to happen,” Barnes said.

Information from: Great Falls Tribune,