WASHINGTON, D.C. ? In an hour-long interview broadcast over KILI radio in Porcupine, S.D., Assistant Secretary of the Interior Kevin Gover said there could be a high price to pay for members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe if the political turmoil there continues.
Discussion focused on the present chaos in tribal government on the Pine Ridge Reservation. A group occupying the tribe's Red Cloud Building, and calling itself the Grassroots Oglala Lakota Oyate, has formed an alliance with Tribal President Harold Dean Salway in opposition to 14 members of the 17-member tribal council and tribal treasurer Chuck Jacobs.
What would the trigger be when the Bureau of Indian Affairs would "stand up and say this is it?" Gover responded, "I think it's at the point when we determine there is some imminent jeopardy to the public interest out there ? and that's something we don't do very lightly. The first thing we want to see in any situation like this is for the tribe to work it out among themselves."
Gover went on to say that the guiding philosophy of the federal government, whenever there are internal tribal problems, is to "look to the tribes to claim the authorities of a sovereign and to act out the responsibilities of a sovereign."
While emphasizing that he thought the turmoil was primarily an internal matter of the Oglala Lakota people, the BIA head said, "When we get into a situation where it cannot be resolved internally, then there comes a point where the deputy commissioner and I say, 'Look, this program is being administered improperly. In fact, it now represents a danger to the public interest, and the BIA is going to take over.'"
Of particular concern to the secretary were allegations the tribe's Department of Public Safety was becoming heavily politicized. "We are very concerned about the situation that we're hearing with regard to law enforcement and we are actively considering re-assumption of that program at this time."
Whether or not the program would be completely taken over or just in part, depended on findings of agents in the field, Gover said. "We've had incidents when officers have acted under the so-called state-of-emergency that was declared by the president (Salway). I should be absolutely clear that we do not recognize the president as having the authority to declare a state of emergency and ? police officers acting at the direction of the president under the state-of-emergency are taking a very serious risk that they will ultimately find themselves being pursued by the Department of Justice for violating peoples' rights."
The secretary was asked to speak to the recent history of political moves and countermoves among tribal leaders, including Salway's suspension of 13 tribal council members, and the council's vote to suspend the president. Who does the BIA recognize as the ruling authority on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation?
"First of all," Gover said, "your tribal constitution is unusually clear in saying that the tribal council is the ultimate governing authority on the reservation. Your tribal court has the authority to interpret that constitution ? and it has done so.
"Harold Salway is the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He was elected by the people and until he is impeached, in accordance with the constitution, he remains the president ? The council has suspended his authority as the president, (but) that does not mean that he is not president ? We remain willing to work with both the council and the president and any other properly constituted government authority there and we will do so."
Would the bureau honor a tribal council resolution that called for audits covering the last five years of the tribe's finances?
"It's extremely important ? it's very difficult for us to go to the congress and say, 'We need more money,' when there's a lot of indication that the monies that we're providing to the tribe right now are not being spent properly.
"We did agree to fund the FY 99 audit, and we would make the offer right now that we would pay (for the '95 to '99 audit). Remember that the '95 to '99 records are in the Red Cloud Building and we don't have access to them right now. If we are given access to those records, we will conduct the audit for '95, '96, '97, '98 and provide those results to the tribe ? I don't know if there's any truth to any of the allegations about financial mismanagement," Gover said.
"I will say this: if we do that audit, we don't care who it is that's at fault. If somebody has committed a crime, we will report it to the Department of Justice and urge them to take action. By conducting an audit, we're not taking a side in this thing.
"We say, 'Let the chips fall where they may,' and anybody who has committed a financial impropriety involving Oglala money can be called to account for it.
The secretary pointed out that the occupation of the Red Cloud Building poses a roadblock to getting those audits started.
"We've got to be given access to those records. I'd make the offer right now to the people in the Red Cloud Building: You give us those records, and we will conduct the audit and, as I say, we'll let the chips fall where they may."
It was pointed out to the secretary that a few hours before the interview a van, with representatives of the BIA, had driven up to the Red Cloud Building in an effort to obtain the additional financial records. They were denied access to the records and instead were given a statement by the Grassroots Oyate that said members would obey a federal subpoena that was accompanied by the current auditor of the tribe's FY 99 records, Jamie Arruba.
"Here's the problem," Gover responded, "if you get records pursuant to a grand jury subpoena, nobody can see those records except the grand jury and the United States Attorney. If (the Grassroots Oyate) won't give up the records until there's a subpoena, they've taken the Bureau of Indian Affairs and any private auditors out of the game. Nobody else can see those records. That's a requirement they need to reconsider ? If they mean to have a federal grand jury do it, they may never learn the results."
After meeting for several hours with members of the tribal council and conducting a one-hour telephone meeting with President Salway ? within a 24 hour period ? Gover said that it is quite surprising "how little difference there is in their opinions of what needs to happen next."
He said it is his belief the next important step is to bring all the disputants to the table to work things out
About the continuing occupation, Gover said, "(The Grassroots Oyate) have raised some issues that I think deserve some serious public attention."
The secretary then noted there have been several instances in the past when tribal members amended the tribal constitution. However, he made a distinction between the present effort and those historical solutions. "What cannot happen is for me, or for a group of people occupying a building, to say the constitution no longer applies and we're installing a new form of government.
"They (the Grassroots Oyate) have to work through the constitutional process to make the changes that they want. And, if in fact they do represent the majority of opinion on the Pine Ridge Reservation, there is absolutely nothing preventing them from changing that constitution. I would even go so far as to say that the BIA would help them ? If the people want to go out and change the constitution it can be done."
Having read several Grassroots Oyate proposals on their web site, the secretary voiced approval, saying, "That's a process that I could definitely get behind and would be willing to commit the resources of the BIA to carrying out."
Gover said he didn't know if the dispute was really about principles because so many of the disputants were, in effect, saying the same thing. We've got to stop this name calling and pointing the finger and stop and listen to one another."
Turning to the mechanism he felt should be used for change, Gover said, "All of the IRA (Indian Reorganization Act) constitutions have provisions ? as to how you go about adopting amendments. They usually require a petition process and then an election called and conducted by the secretary through the BIA ? It doesn't even have to be the tribal government. That's what's interesting about this. We just had a situation in New Mexico where a group of tribal members worked on a petition and passed some amendments over the sitting tribal government ? and they won. That is now the law of that tribe.
"We stand ready to do that in any community where people are working to comply with the constitutional process for change." By "ready," Gover said he meant "when somebody submits a petition to us, we have to carry out the constitutional process. Even if the tribal council said, 'We don't want you to work on this,' they can't stop us. We have a responsibility to do that."
Gover said both the tribal council and the president were agreeable to having the BIA work directly with tribal members from various reservation communities to conduct a constitutional convention and work on petitions to amend the constitution. "As long as it complies with the constitution, we will help."