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Constitutional revisions could help economy

RAPID CITY, S.D. - A love-hate relationship with the IRA constitutional structure on most reservations has brought many tribes to the brink of constitutional revision in order to thrive socially and economically, but that may not be the answer.

The first tribes in the nation to accept the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act'' constitutional model operate efficiently in spite of what is claimed to be ''the worst'' constitution. James Steele Jr., chairman of the tribal council of the Salish-Kootenai on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, said, ''It doesn't matter what's on paper: it's the willingness to see it work, it's a guiding document.''

Questions and criticisms of the IRA form of government abound across the nation when economic change and progress become the issues.

''We practice a separation of powers and there is nothing in our constitution about that,'' Steele said.

Lance Morgan, CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., said he has promoted the separation of powers from government and private enterprise for years.

While some tribal governments strive to change their constitutions to jump-start or promote economic growth, the tribal members may want cultural values to be strengthened.

On the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, a constitutional revision committee finished its work and the voters will now have a chance to make changes. Duane Hollow Horn Bear said the best way for Rosebud to proceed would not be to completely revise the constitution, but make changes through amendments and to make sure that any changes reflected the values of the Lakota people and did not offend the treaties.

Suggestions from the membership for change to the Rosebud Constitution would have required 182 amendments. One suggestion was for qualifications that would require elected officials to know the culture and some of the language, and a separation of powers.

Reservations that do not have economic growth may not have staggered terms for their councils, a sign of the lack of government stability. The Salish-Kootenai have staggered terms and their economy is thriving; the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska has staggered terms; on Pine Ridge, the entire council is up for re-election every two years and their economy is not thriving, according to tribal officials.

The Omaha Tribe in Nebraska just changed to staggered terms, and some of the council members who had served for 25 years with the help of their large families were turned out, Morgan said.

Panelists at the recent 9th Great Plains Regional/Tribal Economic Summit agreed that staggered terms, stability and a separation of powers are essential for the growth of an economy.

Another secret to success may be with self-governance, exemplified by the Flathead Reservation in Montana.

''We are a people of vision and we pushed self-governance to the extreme. We have compacted about every federal program,'' Steele said.

''We believe we have the ability to make our own decisions,'' he continued.

But when the tribe makes the wrong decisions, it has to own up to those mistakes and correct them.

The Flathead Reservation made some revisions its constitution, but as Steele said, ''it was not a bed of roses after the change.''

''We made a mediocre document work because we wanted it to work; we improved upon the mistakes.

''Have faith in the government you have.''

Self-governance is not acceptable to many Great Plains tribes because it is perceived as letting the federal government off the hook for its fiduciary responsibility to them.

''With self-governance we are able to make decisions on behalf of our people. You have to trust your government and when it is out of line, call it to account,'' Steele said.

''You have to have a stable government and also trust in the government. Take accountability seriously. Have accountability at the top; if not, you can't expect it to be done below,'' he said.

''Listen to the people. It is the people's initiative,'' Hollow Horn Bear said.