BILLINGS, Mont. - Carl Venne, chairman of Montana's Crow Tribe, knows that meaningful reform takes time.
Venne, a former law enforcement official who later worked as a counselor at Little Big Horn Community College before being elected to his tribe's top post last November, decries the lack of economic development on his reservation and charges that past tribal leaders have only enriched themselves while in office.
A lack of trust in the tribe's politicized judicial system hasn't helped matters. He says wary investors have been reluctant to throw their weight behind business projects because they contend justice might not be served if tribal business deals go sour. Along with pushing continued reform in the court system, Venne wants to increase development of his nation's vast coal and natural gas reserves and expand Indian-owned manufacturing and retail trade.
Venne, whose first term in office ends next year, recently sat down with Indian Country Today to discuss the state of the Crow Nation and his hopes for the future.
ICT: The Crow Tribe in the past few years went through a contentious process of adopting a new constitution. Many people are apparently still dissatisfied with the document. Do you still advocate having another reservation-wide vote to reconsider its adoption? Or does the tribe need to start the process over?
Venne: The constitution was passed and signed off by the BIA. I don't feel like we need to go back. I feel we have to go forward, to add to what's been done and fix what is wrong with it. There are a lot of things that aren't clear in there. It's pretty general. We need a lot more laws. It's very important that the more laws we create, the more we start creating our own sovereignty instead of having the BIA define sovereignty. We have to create laws to strengthen our sovereignty. And we can do that through our constitution.
ICT: Do you think the current constitution separates powers adequately?
Venne: No. I don't think so. That's what we have to work on and make it clear what the different responsibilities of each branch are. That part needs to be written a lot better than it is.
ICT: Does the executive have more or less power now?
Venne: To me, I think it has more power. I don't exercise that, because I want to work with the (Crow) Legislature. I could do a lot of things, but I don't want to do that. But essentially the power is with the chairman. It's pretty well spelled out in the constitution.
ICT: The Crow tribal courts have been criticized over the years. You recently hired former Montana U.S. Attorney Sherry Matteucci as a consultant to help institute reforms. How are things progressing and what else needs to be done?
Venne: The BIA threatened to take our court system away from us last spring, and I needed assistance. That's why I got Sherry to come down and work with us. After all her work setting up the court system, scheduling, and working with the people within the system, we got a letter saying that it's no longer in effect, that they won't try to take over the court system. Sherry's work helped show us what laws we have to change in the Legislature to beef up our court system. We're on the right track now.
ICT: So what are your biggest frustrations?
Venne: It's how the Crow Tribe has been treated by the federal government by not consulting with the tribe. Past administrations have been involved in situations where they just ran things by people and didn't go through the council for approval.
It's very frustrating to me to see how poor our people are when we have so much. Look at all the agricultural land. Look at all the rivers running through my land - the mountain ranges, the natural resources. And to be poor like this is very frustrating.
I have to do something about that. I don't think we should be taking the back seat to anybody in this country. Why hasn't anybody spoken up about this? Our annual incomes are so low. It's poverty. Why has it been this way so long? Can't anybody see how rich in minerals we are? We don't have to live like this.
People in leadership roles haven't taken the steps to do anything about these things. They've just been filling their own pockets. That's sick. It makes you mad. But I know it's going to be a long, tough fight. But anything good takes awhile to do and it's hard to do. We'll get there. I believe that. I strongly believe in my people and the way they think, our traditions and our culture.
I tell our people that we must be the chosen people for tomorrow. Just about every tribe in the Northern Plains tried to annihilate the Crow Tribe. Now we have our promised land, rich in minerals and land. I think we're the Jews of the New World. I don't know how else to say it. But we as Crow people have to capitalize on it and make it work for us. We depend on outsiders too much. We should be able to make decisions. I as a leader have to take the steps and speak out, make ends meet, make friends with people like (state Senate) President Keenan, the governor, the secretary of Interior. That's what I have to do.
ICT: How would you describe your management style?
Venne: I don't believe in people trying to not work and get money. I always try to make sure that my people are to work every day, and I have to lead by example. I have to be there by 8 o'clock. Sometimes we're working until 9 or 10 at night, but that's fine. There's a lot of things to be done. There's not enough hours in the day for all the problems we're trying to correct. I don't sit in my office all day. I go from one program to the next, finding out what they're doing, how their budgets are. I keep real close tabs on that. I don't believe in waste. I don't allow people to travel all over like they used to. It has to be justified and for a cause.
ICT: Do you think your policies are creating any resentment?
Venne: Sure. But people have to reform. I don't think they realize what reform means. It's to try to run a tight ship, to be responsible, to take pride in your work and your accomplishments. It's not about trying to fleece the tribe. People are starting to realize that I am serious about my job. As time goes on, they'll feel better about it.
What I really wish for my people is to get them back their pride over who they are and where they live. I want them to have a good job where they can finance their own home or whatever else they want to do. And it's all possible. But continual fighting and bickering won't do it. To sit down across from one another and respect one another, work out solutions, that's how it's done. If we don't, we're only hurting ourselves, our kids, our grandkids.
Another thing is that we're starting to lose our language and our culture. When I went to high school, it was required that I take Montana history. I think we should also require that they take Crow history and bring the pride and dignity back to our kids about who they are. That's one reason why I have a reservation-wide clean-up program going. It's part of being proud of who we are. We have to get that pride and integrity back into our people so they can walk around with their heads held high.