The Northern Cheyenne Tribe's capitol building in Lame Deer, Montana. Photo: Jimmy Emerson, DVM

Clara Caufield: The old quorum problem

At Northern Cheyenne, sooner or later, every Tribal President since the days of Allen “Chuggy” Rowland) circa 1970’s, every Tribal President has run into the old quorum problem – that is, unable to get enough tribal council members to attend Council meetings in order to conduct business.

Under the Indian Reorganization Act constitution, there are ten elected Council members and the Vice-President who also has voting rights. Constitutional law requires a 2/3 majority physical attendance of those elected officials to conduct business. Since 2/3rds of 11 is awkward arithmetic, the running question has been 7 or 8 for a quorum. It seems if they are lucky to get 7, they move on with business. But who knows for sure: so many details of our tribal government being murky to the average tribal citizen.

Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council members aren’t held to many standards. On one hand they are full-time and very well-paid elected officials, the hope being that they will come to work on a regular basis and conduct some business beneficial to the Tribe. But, clearly, under the Tribal Constitution they have the legal and moral duty to attend two Council meetings per month, excepting election year when November and December are largely ‘lame-duck, times.

But, since they are elected officials in their own right, no one, including the Tribal President can hold them accountable for attendance. Only their own honor can do that and sometimes that honor wears very thin.

Typically, after a Tribal election there is a brief honeymoon period between the Tribal Executive Branch and Legislative Body (the Council). Then there will be a flurry of activity: Council meetings with many resolutions, ordinances, etc. passed. During that early romance period, tribal members are often welcomed to address the Council, sharing recommendations, ideas or concerns, provided you can gain their attention away from omnipresent cellphones.

Personally, I think a resolution should be passed requiring the Council members to turn over cell phones to the Sergeant of Arms to be held safely during Council meetings. The odds of that? Slim to none.

But sooner or later, the honeymoon period wears off as the Executive and Legislative branches begin struggling for power. Each side has an agenda or vision for where the Tribe should be going and if the Executive Branch does not cultivate them enough or gets ahead, a significant number of Council members bull up by boycotting Council meetings so that no further business can be conducted.

It only takes four and invariably they get together, forming the opposition.


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Clara Caufield can be reached at

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