The Johnson Holy Rock Building on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is named for the late Johnson Holy Rock, a former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Photo: James Pendleton / U.S. Department of Agriculture

Ivan Star Comes Out: Transforming our tribal constitution into a genuine indigenous document

The IRA and its constitution are tools of a biased nationalism

By Ivan Star Comes Out
Native Sun News Today Columnist

President Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863), coined the now iconic phrase, “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, government for the people, by the people, and of the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln’s quote speaks profoundly about equal participatory government.

When democracy is the topic of discussion, Lincoln’s words always come to mind. Another way to apply this is to say, “Unless government is of the people and by the people, it will never be for the people.” However, it contrasts greatly with the federal system of “tribal” government on several reservations here in South Dakota, especially in the beginning (1935).

This ideology has been applied by scholars to a variety of areas, like religion and economics. I’ve included the following as it applies to economics, “unless the economy is of and by the people, it will never be for the people.” (Robin Hahnel, Of the People by the People, 2012). Economy and government go hand-in-hand anyway.

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

Unfortunately, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s (OST) 1935 constitution did not fit into this definition of democracy. I “see” this particular document as part of the United States’ colonization process to “extend and enhance its political, social, and economic influences.” Congressional acts during the 19th century are closely affiliated with this belief, including the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934.

The process for planting these particular documents is wrapped up in ambiguity. Foe instance, three days prior to enactment of the IRA, congress amended the voting requirement which drastically reduced the voting bloc from “majority of all eligible voters” to “majority of 30 per centum of all eligible voters.” This last minute amendment certainly casts suspicion on democracy’s accepted principles.

In addition to this ethically questionable deed, the proposed “tribal” constitution was written by government agents guided largely by the belief that everything they did was “justified and inevitable.” Oceti Sakowin (Seven Fires) descendants had no input in either of these government documents. They were allowed to vote but keep in mind that “Indians” could not vote until congress allowed it in 1924.

What is most confusing is that despite the IRA’s unethical and perhaps unconstitutional voting amendment, we continue to use it today. This peculiarity leads to a long-standing discontent and even some dissent toward this federal government system. This particular constitution will never work until the entire system becomes of, by, and for the people.

This is the energy behind the current constitutional revision work on the Pine Ridge Reservation. One way to look at it is to think in terms of transforming the IRA’s 1935 “tribal” constitution into a genuine indigenous document. In other words, voter input and consent during its developmental stages is vital to achieve ownership of it.


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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

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