A copy of the Oglala Sioux Tribe's constitution and the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Photo by James Giago Davies

Ivan Star Comes Out: Making the tribal constitution work for our people

We can turn this IRA constitution into a genuine people’s constitution

By Ivan Star Comes Out
Native Sun News Today Columnist

Although the definitions of Constitution vary from source to source, they all allude to the following generalization. Besides creating the system of government, it also defines the manner in which it is to function, internally and toward the people. A constitution also sets forth individual rights and the government’s responsibility to honor those rights.

In other words, the provisions of an equitable constitution emanate the consent of the people whom it governs. Essentially, the purpose of a constitutional government is to define the distribution of power equally among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. If a constitution is written by the federal government and tactfully enacted upon the Oglala people, does it fit this description?

Had our “tribal’ constitution been written in an evenhanded and rightful manner and, most importantly, aspired to the wants or needs of the people, I believe life would be much better today. My contention is that it was written to subjugate the Oglala people. On top of that, from 1936 to 2008, all our elected officials took an oath to “protect and defend” this constitution and the United States’.

In 1935, this “tribal” constitution was promoted here on the Pine Ridge by the federal government with assurances of jobs, homes, and “prosperity.” The promoters promised voters a bright future for their children if they accepted the document with a “yes” vote. The government even allowed 178 non-natives to vote in the election. More than likely they all voted in favor of the constitution.

Today, 80 years later, the majority of Lakota are still struggling with poverty, a housing shortage, and children continually endure negative education statistics. Alcohol and drug addiction, domestic violence, child/elder abuse, rape, and single-parenthood are rampant. The reservation now has a huge adult correction facility (jail) and a new court system that is struggling to administer justice equitably.

Ivan F. Star Comes Out. Photo courtesy Native Sun News Today

Initially (1936), this “tribal” constitution did not accord its constituents all of the rights the Euro-American citizen enjoyed. Via the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, reservation residents have relied on the U.S. Constitution for their rights. Although they voted for or against a “tribal” constitution in 1935, it is obvious that the civil right to vote is granted by the U. S. Constitution.

The “right to vote” is mentioned five times in the United States Constitution. It is also considered a privilege when it comes to age, mental competency, felons, and citizenship. I stand to be corrected but I believe this constitution was imposed on the Oglala. This document along with the right to vote became a means to access their land and resources.

The promoters of this “tribal” constitution were aware that the “Indians” did not want their proposed system of government because they had their own. The reduction of the total voting bloc in the IRA to “30 per centum of those eligible to vote” leaves some questions. Among them is whether this violates the “3/4 adult male consent” clause in the 1868 treaty.

Today, we must raise our awareness of the unavoidable fact that this new congressional act does not supersede our treaties. “Nothing in the Act of June, 1934 shall be construed to abrogate or impair any rights guaranteed under any existing treaty (ies) with any Indian tribes.” The problem with this is that the government repressed and/or destroyed every aspect of the traditional system of government.

The descendants of the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Fires) are now allowed to elect their own tribal council every two years. It is a well-known fact that the bulk of the “Indian” voters are usually forgotten in the aftermath of the elections and ornate inauguration ceremonies. I say this defect exists because of the way the constitution has written.

Regardless of how one chooses to look at the situation, this “tribal” legislative entity, called the Tribal Council, was bestowed with absolute power and is supported by congress. In other words, Tribal Council authority is maintained by U. S. Congress. Both the council and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) answer to the Department of Interior who in turn answers to U. S. Congress.

In simpler terms, this “tribal” constitution is penned in such a manner so as to subjugate and control the descendants of the Oceti Sakowin. Initially, it contained only the writer’s aspirations and values, namely congress. The “Indian” people had absolutely no input in it.

This system certainly benefitted a smaller group of “tribally enrolled” residents who attained college degrees and have been acting cursorily trying to lead the people. At the same time, I see Lakota language-speaking people surviving, as opposed to living, under this system. As a group, we have endured many obstacles that deter our economic stability, our desire, and ability, to participate in the modern world.

A major educational deficiency was created in 1936 when the federal government did not develop curriculum for their new system of government. If the federal government had any compassion for the “Indians,” it would have strived to formally educate them about the IRA, BIA, treaties, and history from a local perspective. Instead it removed all elements of indigenous culture from its schools.

The lack of formal education gradually toned down the system’s practicality on the reservation, from the 50-plus communities to the eight districts. Essentially, it resulted in a lack of participation by the people and the system was not being used adeptly and eventually became useless.

Since 1997, district governments have been operating under the control and authority of the tribal constitution. The district executive committee’s powers are now delineated in Article VI of the “tribal” constitution. The district and community constitutions were pushed aside but were not abolished. They are dormant and can be reactivated by the district people by adhering to certain legitimate actions.

Needless to say, the district governments in the outlying districts have been operating in a confusing and sometimes chaotic fashion. Furthermore, these elected officials are not paid and have been volunteering their time, yet they must comply with Tribal Council directives.

The most serious deficiency on the Pine Ridge is that youth are still being minimally educated about this “tribal” government system known as the IRA. Ideally, our 8th grade graduates should be exposed to their language and culture, as well as the history of our treaties and the BIA.

It is imperative that we (voters) stop with the senseless infighting in the districts and strive to make this foreign system a genuine people’s government. Educating our youth can only provide them with their much needed sense of identity and thus the wherewithal to return to the old Oceti Sakowin system of government in their future. For now, we must make this imported system work for us.


Support Native media and read more news on Native Sun News Today:

We can turn this IRA constitution into a genuine people’s constitution
Ivan F. Star Comes Out can be reached at P.O. Box 147, Oglala, South Dakota, 57764; via phone at 605-867-2448 or via email at mato_nasula2@outlook.com.

Copyright permission Native Sun News Today

Related Stories:
Native Sun News Today: Oglala Sioux Tribe asks citizens about constitution (January 11, 2018)