Ian Record: Constitutional Reform: Some Perspectives on Process

Native Nations Institute

Dr. Ian Record, NNI Manager of Educational Resources, provides a broad overview of the inherent difficulties involved with constitutional reform, the different processes that Native nations are developing to engage in constitutional reform, and some of the effective reform strategies that NNI is encountering through its work with Native nations in this area. He also discusses the appropriate roles that attorneys and legal advocates should play in the reform process.

Resource Type

Record, Ian. "Constitutional Reform: Some Perspectives on Process." Indigenous Peoples' Law and Policy Program, James E. Rogers College of Law, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. April 15, 2014. Presentation.

“The reality is that in the era of nation building, the era of tribal self-determination, what we’re seeing is a growing number of nations realizing that if they want to fully exercise their sovereignty, if they want to fully exercise their jurisdiction, if they want to be serious about tribal self-determination and self-governance, they have to look first and foremost at the constitutional basis of their governance systems and once...when they do that, what a great number of them are finding is that the constitutions that they have for a variety of reasons aren’t theirs, were imposed upon them by outsiders, typically the federal government through the Indian Reorganization Act, through the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act and other types of legislation and acts. And what they’re finding is that they don’t own them, they’re not theirs, they don’t make sense to them culturally, and also in many cases, they don’t meet the challenges of the day. They’re very structurally weak, they’re ill equipped to enable Native nations to achieve their goals, to negotiate the complex governance challenges that they face in the 21st century.

And so what we do at the Native Nations Institute is we spend quite a bit of our time working directly with a growing number of native nations, in particular in the region of North and South Dakota and Minnesota in this realm of governance reform and specifically constitutional reform. So often we are called to come in, and at the very beginning of a process, when the nation may just have come to the decision that we’re going to tackle this constitutional reform challenge. And often we’re brought in after a reform process has failed. Often we’re brought in to help a nation design a citizen education campaign around a new constitution that they’ve already created. So what we’ve been in the great position to do is to really see at various stages of the constitutional reform process what is working and what isn’t.

So what I wanted to talk about today, to spend a little bit of time on, is what we’ve learned when it comes to not so much what kinds of constitutional changes that tribes are making, but more how they’re doing it. Because fortunately or unfortunately, what we’re seeing is there’s a lot more nations that recognize that they need to make constitutional change happen than are actually doing that constitutional change because it’s an incredibly difficult process. And it’s often difficult for the very reasons that I already talked about, these legacies of colonialism, which I’ll get into in a little bit.

So here’s some of the outcomes that we see, and this is sort of done in conversational style, but we see a variety of outcomes when it comes to nations engaging in constitutional reform. Some actually succeed. Some actually succeed to the scope and to the degree to which they actually embarked upon.

So they say, ‘Well, at the beginning of the process we’ve decided we’re going to get rid of this constitution we have because for the reasons I put out it doesn’t make sense to us, it doesn’t meet our needs and they actually succeed in developing an entirely new constitution. Other say, ‘Well, yeah, I guess you could say we succeeded, but we only did minor changes. We didn’t do nearly as much as we had hoped to do because perhaps some of the bigger changes were too controversial, our people weren’t ready to really accept what a major change in a particular area was going to mean so we kind of...we did the easy stuff. We did the more pro forma stuff.’

Sometimes we hear tribes say, ‘Well, we completed reform but our citizens didn’t really have a full sense of ownership in the process and they didn’t really care what the outcome is and things are sort of proceeding as they did before.’ And that’s a real dangerous place that you don’t want to be in as a Native nation.

Sometimes we see tribes say, ‘Well, we completed reform, but the community is now only more divided than it was before. We engaged in this process because there was division within the community, there was a lot of factionalism going on, we felt that at the root of that factionalism was our governance system and the inherent inadequacies in it, but this reform we’ve engaged in has actually made things worse.’

Often we hear this, ‘Our process started and then it stalled.’ And there is a variety of reasons we see for that. I’d say the biggest one probably is the political turnover challenge. Often, in these nations that are wrestling with constitutional reform, if you look at for instance the standard boilerplate IRA (Indian Reorganization Act) constitution system of government, you have two-year, non-staggered terms of elected office. So if you think about that, you have a very small window. If you have a group of leaders that decide, ‘We want to push constitutional reform, maybe that was the platform we ran on our campaign and we really feel like we’ve got this short window to do this,’ and if you’re thinking about two-year, non-staggered terms, you’re looking at maybe 12 months of real meaningful work that you can do before it’s time to get ready for re-election and try to run on some sort of platform of progress.

And then often we see, ‘We can’t even get the process started.’ And in these instances typically what it is is there’s widespread recognition in the community, there’s widespread recognition among elected leadership, there’s widespread recognition among people working in tribal government that, ‘The system we have is not working. We can’t make this work, we can’t move forward as long as we have it, but we can’t seem to get off the mark in terms of figuring out how to actually change it.’ So these are just some of the common outcomes.

So why is it so difficult? Constitutional change is difficult everywhere. If you look at a lot of the examples coming out of Africa for instance in the last 20, 30 years, if you look at those former Eastern European Soviet Union block countries that got out of the Soviet Union when the Soviet Union fell apart, they’ve been struggling for the past 30 or so years trying to figure out, ‘What’s going to be the constitutional basis of our government?’ And there were a number that simply pulled one off the shelf and they very quickly found that, ‘It’s not working for us. We’ve got to develop something that is ours, that makes sense to us.’ So it’s difficult everywhere.

The legacies of colonialism complicate it. Often the very policies that nations are trying to get out from under by engaging in constitutional reform are the actual things that hinder constitutional reform, things like I just mentioned, these short, non-staggered terms of elected office. Often in these nations you have a lack of separations of powers, division of responsibilities, so you can have one leader or a couple of leaders just say, ‘If we’re not buying into this process, we can derail the whole thing,’ because they have that much power and authority. So the legacies of colonialism complicate it.

Time is often short. I mentioned that. And I wanted to share this example with you and this is in your packet here. This is...I actually took this screen capture. This is from an email that we got from a tribe that we’ve been working with on and off for the last several years. They were basically emailing us asking us to provide them assistance and this is what they laid out as their timetable for starting a constitutional reform process and actually having a new draft constitution in hand, upon which time they could have their citizens vote on it. This is a nation with more than 13,000 citizens, spread out all over the place. More than half of them live off reservation.

So they had it in mind, the particular elected leader who was leading this initiative, had it in mind that between early May and mid-June, roughly six weeks, that they would initiate a constitutional reform process with an initial training of their leadership followed by a community forum to discuss and review the current constitution, a team meeting to draft the new constitution, a community forum to review that draft and offer any feedback, and then the presentation of a petition and proposed revised constitution for signatures at general council to basically put it up for election. All this they were going to do within six weeks, an entirely new constitution.

And what we responded to them was, we said, ‘You need to take a step back and take a deep breath and think about what you’re trying to accomplish. You’re trying to essentially revolutionize your entire system of governance in six weeks, a system of governance that your people has lived with for the entirety of most people’s lifetimes on the reservation and you’re going to give your community, your citizens, one opportunity really to express their will about what they want to see in a constitution and then one opportunity to respond to how they think they see their will captured in that document. And also they have to be physically present and there’s only going to be one chance each time. So if you’ve got a schedule conflict that day, too bad, you had your opportunity.’

So this is the sort of thing we sometimes see nations struggle with because this elected leader says, ‘If I don’t get this done during my term in office, then it’s not going to happen. So I’ve got to sort of build this artificial timetable that does not allow for the people to gain ownership in the process.’ And often really that’s at the root of the problem in many of these constitutions is the people don’t own it. They don’t feel it’s theirs, they don’t believe in it and they don’t believe in the system of government that the constitution creates and so they tend to try to rip off that government for everything it’s worth instead of actually supporting it and supporting the elected leaders who are elected to lead it. So time is often short, that’s a huge challenge.

Cultural match, which is one of the NNI research findings. That is often very difficult to achieve because it’s very difficult to go back to the way things were 150, 200 years ago. What I often stress when I work with tribes in this area is you need to go back and understand how your nation governed itself before the legacies of colonialism began to have an impact, federal policies began to have an impact. What was your nation’s constitution, written or unwritten? What was it? How did the people actually organize to get things done, to sustain the life of the nation? And then also how did your nation’s current constitution come to be? Because those are tools, those are informational tools that nations need as they begin this...to engage this question of reform.

And then another challenge of why reform is so difficult is that you’re not reforming your constitution sort of in isolation. You’ve got to do it with some thought about, ‘How do we relate with other governments? How do we relate with the United States government?’ And what’s really cool is what we’re seeing is we’re seeing a growing number of nations for instance that are removing any reference to the United States in their constitutions, they’re removing any reference of the U.S. Secretary of Interior and their ability to approve changes to the constitution within that constitution. So it is a difficult challenge.

So here’s some other reasons that we’ve encountered. There’s not enough citizen education. And this is really an inherent issue that is larger than simply the constitutional reform process that many nations try to engage in. Often they’re starting at a deficit because they don’t...there isn’t in the community a tribal civics education taking place where young people in the community are learning about how their people governed themselves traditionally, how their current government works, what their current constitution says, they’re not learning that. And so you’re sort of starting with a knowledge gap in many Native communities that is difficult to overcome and really takes a lot of forethought. And that sort of is a bigger challenge than simply saying, ‘Okay, we want to change the constitution.’ If you’re engaging your people about that question, first they have to understand, ‘Well, what are we starting with? What are we starting with? You’re asking us to consider changing something, we don’t even know what that something is.’

So often that’s an issue. Often there’s not enough citizen participation and ownership. It’s that example I just showed you. ‘Eh, we’ll give our citizens one shot at the apple and after that we’ve at least given them the opportunity and then we’re going to move forward.’

And then there’s this question of politics. Reform has to start somewhere and typically it’s going to start with one group of leaders, elected leaders, who are saying, ‘We think this is important. We think if the nation’s going to move forward we’ve got to go down this constitutional reform road.’ No matter what, there’s going to be some in the community that’ll say, ‘Well, this is their political agenda. They’re not doing this on the nation’s behalf. They’re doing this for their own political gain.’ So there’s sort of an inherent distrust and often it’s, again, this is one of the many ‘Catch 22s’ in this area, often the distrust of government in many of these communities has been exacerbated over the decades by the fact that they have a weak constitution. And so when these nations or these leaders say, ‘Well, we need to strengthen our constitution,’ that’s when that distrust tends to rear its ugly head.

And then there’s just simply fear of change. Fear of change. Like I mentioned, in many communities there’s a widespread recognition that the constitution and system of government they have is not adequate, it’s not appropriate, but at the same time a lot of those people feel very comfortable with the way things are. It’s not the best it could be, but they’re comfortable with it, they know how it works, they know the system and if you come to them and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to turn this thing completely upside down on its head and we’re going to create an entirely new governance reality,’ that’s pretty scary for folks.

And there’s parallels around the world. Just look at like the Affordable Care Act. That was a major change in terms of how the government, how the U.S. government serves the U.S. citizens. Basically saying, ‘We’re getting into the health care field. We’re going to get more forcefully into this area.’ That was a huge change and a lot of people still aren’t satisfied with it.

So here are some strategies we’ve come across. We’ve seen tribes tend to be more successful with constitutional reform when they think really hard at the outset about who is going to be in charge of the process. Who is going to be in charge of the process? And we’ll get more into that. They think long and hard about, ‘What are the best ways we can educate our nation’s citizens,’ and this is really critical. That ‘s’ is underlined for a reason. Tribes tend to be more successful when they develop a multi-faceted approach to citizen education and engagement. So basically they do much more than that example I showed you where they just said, ‘Well, we’re going to have a community meeting. We’ll make sure it’s well publicized. Whoever shows up, shows up and whoever doesn’t show up, you had your chance.’

Well, we’ve seen nations like White Earth for instance, who recently went through the development of a new constitution up in Minnesota, who said, ‘We understand our people. We understand the different ways they learn. We’re going to try to develop multiple pathways by which our citizens can learn about and contribute to the development of this new constitution. It’s going to be several cycles of community meetings held in different locations where we know our people live, whether it’s on reservation or off. We’re going to have a website specifically dedicated to this process where we have things like explanatory videos that discuss key aspects of the new constitution, etc. We’re going to be active on social media because we know that’s how young people access information.’ So a multi-faceted approach to educate and engage the nation’s citizens about this critical topic.

And then culturally appropriate methods, culturally appropriate methods. So for instance Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, a Pueblo nation in Texas that I’ve been working with, they’ve incorporated, they don’t have a written constitution, but one of the things they’re engaged in is redefining their citizenship criteria, which you could argue is a major constitutional change because they’re changing how they’re constituting themselves by seemingly...it looks like they’re going to be abandoning blood quantum and moving to lineal descent. So that’s a major constitutional change.

Well, what they’ve been doing is they’ve been incorporating their citizen education and engagement strategies into their existing cultural activities. So for instance, I think it’s every three months they have what’s called a ‘Pueblo Junta,’ which is basically a large gathering of all the community members and that’s where they’re updating citizens on what they’ve been learning about -- the surveys they’ve been doing of community members, engaging them, getting their feedback and so forth.

So where we see nations really say, ‘What’s appropriate for our people culturally?’ For instance, ‘If we’re really serious about engaging our elders, what’s the most culturally appropriate way to do that? What’s the most culturally appropriate way to get their input on what we want the new constitution to look like?’ So we’ve seen that bear some good fruit.

Where we’ve seen tribes stumble is when councils dominate the process. It gets back to that politics challenge. You don’t want your elected leaders seeming like they’re at the helm of the reform process. That’s not to say they don’t have a critical role to play in sort of setting up the process through, for instance, enabling legislation. They could pass enabling legislation that actually formally creates a constitutional reform body and then make sure that that constitutional reform body has a life that transcends any single administration or any single term in office. But it’s really a supportive role. Where we’ve seen tribes be successful is when they set up an independent constitutional reform body. It can be a commission, a convention, a committee -- whatever you want to call it. The name doesn’t really matter. It’s the independence that matters, the independence of that entity that matters.

And we’ve seen tribes take a variety of approaches to this. Tribes are really being innovative in terms of how they’re making sure that this constitutional reform body is representative of the entire nation because they understand that at the end of the day, if this reform process is going to be successful, it needs to have the trust of the people and the ownership of the people or else the outcome won’t matter. And so they’re saying, ‘Well, how do we achieve that?’

Well, for our nation it might be, ‘Let’s do it by district. Let’s do it by political district because that makes sure that...that ensures that we have...every district will have representation.’ Or they might say, ‘Well, let’s do it by demographics. We want to make sure we have a young person on there. We want to make sure we have an administrative, bureaucrat type from tribal government on there who can sort of bring that perspective. We want to make sure we have an elder on there. We want to make sure we have an off-reservation citizen on there. We want to make sure that we have somebody who’s a descendent of a tribally enrolled citizen, but may not actually be a citizen of the nation because one of the things we’re thinking about doing is reforming our citizenship criteria and if we do that, that person would then become a citizen of the tribe. So we want that perspective as well.’

So there’s a variety of ways that nations are approaching this representation issue, but ultimately what it needs to be is independent. It needs to have that sort of stand-alone...that stand-alone persona in the community where the average Joe Citizen will look at that reform body and say, ‘Okay, this is not the creature of the council or this particular elected leader. This has its own force to it that is independent and distinct from the current holders of political authority.’ And it’s got to be well funded and it’s got to be respected.

What we’ve seen in some instances is nations will do a really good job of this kind of stuff, the independence questions, the representation question, and then they get down here and they say, ‘Well, we didn’t really have a lot of money for this.’ When what we’ve seen, where these efforts tend to be successful, they take two, three, four, five, six, seven years. They take an extraordinary amount of research, meetings, sometimes travel, sometimes these nations are sending delegations to other tribes who’ve undergone reform and learning from them. So this can get pretty costly and a lot of it depends on how big the tribe is, how many of their citizens they’re trying to reach and get engaged in this.

And then it has to be respected. It has to be respected. Unfortunately what we’ve seen is in some instances tribal leaders will pay lip service to the fact that, ‘Yeah, we’re for constitutional reform. We’ve set up this commission,’ and then they’re out at the powwow and they’re chatting up their buddies, they’re bad mouthing the commission’s work and basically that begins to derail the process because people begin to think, ‘Well, if the leadership really isn’t truly behind this, why should I be?’ So that issue of respect is absolutely critical.

I kind of covered this already about this question of legitimacy of this reform commission, of this reform body. One leader of a nation we’ve worked with in this area said, ‘We went into this process with the very explicit thought in mind that we wanted to have this commission maintain an aura of independence,’ was the term they used. An ‘aura of independence.’ That it’s separate and distinct from sort of the normal political back and forth of the day. That this was going to be about the nation and not about faction A versus faction B.

So here’s some just responsibilities that we see these members, whoever ultimately serves on this commission, what we see as some of their key responsibilities. One of the things we really impress upon tribes... And again, it’s hard for tribes to get outside of their own box, to kind of get their head out of their own issues, their own constitutional problems and say, ‘Well, what could we learn from other nations?’ And so what we really impress upon the nations we work with on this is, ‘Go out. Learn from other tribes. Yeah, we can tell you a little bit about what Tribe A did and Tribe B did and Tribe C did, but you could learn a lot more yourself by going and learning from them directly.’ And it’s not to say you go out and you meet with them and you learn from them and you just simply take everything that they’ve done and you implement it wholesale in your nation, but you may learn a lot of valuable lessons about process, you may learn a lot of valuable lessons about the particular types of constitutional changes that those other nations made and why they made them, and are they working or are they not working. But again, that kind of thing takes funding so you’ve got to think about that up front.

They developed drafts of constitutional changes for feedback and this is critical -- drafts plural, drafts plural. The constitutional drafting process is not a one-shot deal. We’ve seen tribes tend to be more successful when they go into it thinking, ‘We’re going to keep drafting and redrafting and redrafting and redrafting until we get this right because it gives us an opportunity to continually, again and again, solicit the citizens’ thoughts, capture their will on this issue and then incorporate it into this document.’

And part of the...I touched on the citizen education challenge a little bit more, but where we see tribes focus a lot of their energy is trying to help the people understand the answers to these questions. They need to understand that the average Joe Citizen who’s maybe a single mom with three kids, just struggling to put food on the table, get propane in the winter, that kind of stuff, you’re asking them to care about the constitution. You’ve got to make the argument, ‘This will improve your life. This will improve the life of your children and their children.’ And you really need to then educate them about what role does the constitution play in the lives of the people, because if you’re not making that argument, then you’ve lost them even before you get out the door. And then you’ve got to say, ‘Well, if we change the constitution, here’s how we think it will benefit you. Here’s how we think it will strengthen your role as citizen of the nation.’ And here are some of the things we see them focusing on in terms of explaining the purpose of this to the people.

And we see them adopt a number of really interesting strategies. We’re seeing...I’ve been working a lot with the tribal colleges across the country in getting them to use our online curriculum and what we’re seeing is a proliferation in recent years of tribal government classes, of history classes specifically about that nation’s government and that nation’s constitution. We’re seeing some tribes really use their media outlets, whether it’s their newspaper, their tribal newspapers, their tribal radio stations, they’re using them to great advantage.

For instance, one woman I know, she’s from one of the Dakota tribes and she’s got a radio show and she’s on the constitutional reform committee. And so each week she does about 30 minutes on the nation’s constitution and she interviews people on the constitutional reform committee and has them provide updates on where the conversation is on the new constitution and so forth. That’s a really good example. And there’s a lot of tribes that have their own radio stations or at least have access to airtime on radio stations that they don’t own.

Youth councils is another emerging trend we’re seeing. Nations really thinking, ‘This challenge of rebuilding our nation, it’s not going to happen overnight. It didn’t take us a year to get to where we’re at. It’s not going to take a year to change things for the better, so we’ve really got to view this as a long-term proposition. And if we’re going to be serious about nation rebuilding, about making...building a stronger government that is more culturally appropriate, we’ve got to start young. We’ve got to start with our young people.’ So just here in Arizona, there’s some of the most innovative, award-winning tribal youth councils anywhere in Indian Country. Gila River, Tohono O’odham, some really good examples there.

So here’s what we sometimes see and this is an unfortunate thing. And again I think, as we move forward, I’ll talk a little bit more of where we see the role of lawyers, of attorneys, in the constitutional reform process. But this is something really important to keep in mind that you really have to have the citizens on board before the constitutional reform train leaves the station or you could end up with a situation where reform fails and you have your citizens even more apathetic about government, even more alienated, and that’s not where you want to be. Particularly when you embark on constitutional reform, it’s often to improve or strengthen the relationship between citizens and government. Often constitutional reform is attempted precisely because people in positions of authority and of leadership realize that ‘our people are completely disengaged and at the root of that disengagement is this inadequate constitution we have.’

So here’s some reasons why people won’t participate and why the citizen engagement challenge is so difficult. I’ll talk about this. I sort of touched on this. Often people just say, ‘I’m too busy. I’ve got too much going on. I don’t have time to deal with this.’ And so where we see tribes succeed is where they recognize early on that, ‘We can’t expect the people to come to us; we’ve got to go to them. We’ve got to go to them.’ As the leader of one nation that we work with said, ‘If your entire constitutional reform process is predicated on the flyer approach, then you’re dead before you even begin because where you’re simply posting flyers saying, ‘Come to this meeting about constitutional reform,’ nobody shows up and you said, ‘Well, they had their chance,’ that’s not good enough. You’ve got to go to them.

‘It’s not my constitution.’ I don’t know how many of you guys read Indianz.com on a regular basis or Indian Country Today. I don’t know how many of you’ve been following the saga up at Blackfeet. But they are...I was just reading a story today and that refrain was coming out again and again and again. ‘Why are we even dealing with this constitution? It’s not ours. Why are we even abiding by these rules? They’re not ours.’ And so I think again that’s where that history piece is so critical, is people need to really understand sort of the detail of that. ‘Well, yeah, you understand it’s not yours, it was something that was imposed upon you, but what does that mean? What does that mean for how you actually go about changing it? And if it’s not yours, then what would be yours?’ Because often, there’s not a lot of conversation about that. There’s a sense of, ‘Well, we know that’s not our government, we don’t believe in it and we understand that’s at the root of our dysfunction,’ but there’s less conversation about, ‘Well, what is ours? What is our constitution if this is not our constitution?’

‘It doesn’t impact my life.’ You could ask any average American citizen that and that would probably be what they would say about the U.S. Constitution. ‘It doesn’t impact my life.’ Sure it does, just not in a way they can readily see. So again, that’s part of the citizen education and engagement challenge is you’ve got to educate people about how it does in fact impact their life.

‘I don’t trust the process. I don’t trust the process.’ And I want to focus on two things here. Sources of mistrust, one of them is commonly dominance of lawyers in the process. How many of you guys like reading constitutions? Come on, raise your hands. Ray, you like reading constitutions? Nobody likes reading constitutions, right? Even you lawyers to be, not really a lot of fun to read constitutions. Imagine your tribal citizens, your average tribal citizens who may have a tenth-grade, twelfth-grade, maybe a tribal college...a couple years of tribal college education. When lawyers tend to dominate the process, the accessibility of the conversation about constitutions tends to be way above their heads. And so we see a lot of mistrust bubbling up when the lawyers are sort of front and center in the reform process from start to finish.

I’ll give you a good example of this and I may have shared this at the seminar. I was actually teaching with some of my colleagues at an executive education seminar with a tribe who has sort of the boilerplate IRA constitution, system of government-style tribe. We had these lawyers show up to this seminar during the second day and they said, ‘If you have some time at the end of your agenda, we’d like to have the floor so we could talk to the elected leadership and community members and some of the key decision makers,’ that were assembled there in the room. And so we did and they actually got up and they said, ‘Well, we’ve been working on this new draft constitution for the tribe and we got it all done. Here it is. It’s all finished. We want to just give you a quick overview of it.’ And before they got more than about 20 or 30 more words out of their mouth, they got shouted down by the people in the room because nobody knew they were even working on this draft constitution. And so there was no ownership in it and the people that had assembled in the room didn’t even care what was in it, it didn’t matter because it was sort of a done deal. And the feeling was, ‘Well, you’re showing us that this constitution’s a done deal and we weren’t even consulted on it. How dare you.’

And so the ways to overcome, some of the ways to overcome that mistrust is transparency, transparency and transparency. You have to expect that the lawyers are going to respond to the community needs and concerns instead of expecting the community to follow the lawyer’s lead. And what’s absolutely critical is that you create a safe environment for real dialogue. And again this comes back to the role of elected leaders. If you’ve got your elected leaders at every single community meeting about the constitution, about the drafting of a new constitution, and you’ve got a bunch of people that care about this new constitution and they really want to share their thoughts and feelings, but the last time they did it in front of an elected leader they lost their job or something like that, you’ve got to question, ‘Do we really have a safe environment for real dialogue?’ And the elected leaders have to think, ‘Well, me even being here, not even saying anything but me even being present at a community meeting about a new constitution, is that appropriate? Is that going to stifle real dialogue? Is that going to stifle frank input from our citizens who we really need their input if we’re going to have a constitution, a new constitution that is going to have the ownership of the people in it?’

So I want to spend a couple more minutes about some of the things I think that you as attorneys to be need to think about when it comes to tribal constitutional reform and the process by which tribes engage in constitutional reform. Because I would imagine that at some point in your careers -- as I mentioned at the outset -- at some point in your careers you’re going to get involved in a constitutional reform process or you’re going to be engaged on a constitutional question or you’re going to be asked to review the constitutionality of something, of a tribe’s constitution, and that could be in the constitution, it could be in its codes, it could be in resolutions or something.

And I thought this...I wanted to share this quote with you because I thought that it’s very telling. One of our colleagues was having a conversation with the leader of a nation who was engaged in reform and he said that, ‘The law comes from the constitution, therefore the lawyer should come after the constitution.’ I thought that that’s a very telling quote because what you want to think about as an attorney and as a lawyer is, ‘What is my role in assisting a nation in developing a constitution, implementing that constitution, living with that constitution, interpreting that constitution,’ it needs to be a supportive role. It needs to be an advisory role, not so much a creative role.

So one of the things to think about in terms of the appropriate role of lawyers in the reform process is to become an expert on tribal constitutional reform. And there’s a couple threads here that I think you should think about. The first is, have a sense of the landscape. What are tribes doing in the area of constitutional reform across Indian Country? What are the major trends that they’re showing as they develop new constitutions, ratify constitutional amendments, etc.? Where are they focusing their activity, their energy? Things like separations of powers, which is an Indigenous concept. Re-instilling that back into their governance systems. Things like removing the Secretary of Interior approval clause from their constitutions, where if a tribe wants to change its constitution, amend its constitution, it has to go get Secretary of Interior approval to do that. A lot of tribes are just saying, ‘Let’s get that out of the equation. We’re going to amend our constitution to take that out.’

It’s things like strengthening justice systems. And as lawyers who are going to be probably dealing in that realm quite a bit of tribal justice systems, it’d behoove you to know, what are tribes doing in this area to strengthen their justice systems? How are they doing it? How many tribes are bestowing upon their appeals court or their supreme court the ability to review the constitutionality of legislation that the tribe ratifies, that the council passes? So become an expert in tribal constitutional reform. And I would argue also become an expert on...if you envision yourself -- whether you’re an attorney general or maybe you’re a lawyer that’s on retainer with the tribe or maybe you’re consulting a number of tribes -- become an expert on what’s the oral history, what’s the record of that nation’s constitutional reform and that nation’s current constitution because often there’s a lot more in the back story to that nation’s constitution than what’s written on the page. Because you might read a provision that says, ‘Well...’ that articulates a separation between the executive and the legislative and it may be a bit innovative in how it words it, but that doesn’t give you enough to go on. You might need to understand, ‘Well, why did they decide to take that approach to that separations of powers question?’ And so learn what you need to learn to understand how that constitution and specific provisions within it came to be.

Help to fine-tune the final constitutional language. So for instance, there’s one tribe we’re working with right now and what they’re moving towards through their citizen engagement process on constitution reform is they’re envisioning, ‘At the end of the day we’re going to end up with basically a terms sheet.’ It’s basically going to be in very layman’s terms, ‘Here are the dozen or maybe two dozen key things we want to see in our new constitution. We want it to protect the language and preserve the language of the people, the native language of the people,’ or something like that. ‘We want a clear and distinct separations of powers between the executive branch, the legislative branch,’ whatever that might look like, whatever it might be. So there might be sort of layman’s terms-style provisions that then need to be taken by a lawyer who understands the legal language that might...that might be the role for you is, ‘How do we fine tune this?’ Another thing is to provide advice as to the legality of the new constitutional amendments. Because often constitutional amendments, if they’re not worded correctly, they might conflict with other laws that the nation has on the books. They might conflict with the actual constitution. An amendment might actually conflict with the rest of the constitution. So that might be a role that you as a lawyer could play.

Help the nation navigate the secretarial election process. So for a lot of nations, as I mentioned, who have that language in their constitutions that says, ‘If we want to change our constitution, we have to have the Secretary of Interior approve it.’ You actually have to go through a secretarial election. It’s an incredibly complex, thorny process and that’s where an attorney can play a role to say, ‘Okay, how do we navigate this process. Maybe there are other nations who’ve recently gone through this. I can call up their attorney and say, ‘What worked for you, what didn’t? How do we streamline this process? Are there certain people at the Bureau that I need to talk to who will be responsible on this thing so we can move this thing forward so our people aren’t waiting 18 months to get an election on something they already agreed to at the tribal level”?’

One of the key areas is you’d advise a nation on, ‘How do you actually implement this constitution?’ Because often these new constitutions or these constitutional amendments will mandate the creations of bodies of law by which those constitutional provisions are then enacted and it might be your role to say, ‘Okay, well, here’s how we actually implement these changes. We need to create laws for this and laws for that. We need to reconcile these conflicting laws we have or else we can’t fully enact this particular provision.’

And then you have to understand how the changes that the nation is either contemplating or the ones they’ve already made, what is it going to mean for how the nation can now exercise its jurisdiction and sovereignty? Because often if you look at some of these IRA constitutions, they’re very, very limited. They have a very limited conception of the nation’s sovereignty and suddenly when that nation then creates a new constitution, it really argues for a much broader, much fuller expression and exercise of sovereignty. So in your role as legal advisor, you’ve got to think, ‘Well, what does that mean in terms of how we deal with other governments, how we deal with private parties for instance? How does that...what does that mean we have to develop in terms of law? Does this mean we structure our contracts differently?’ So there’s this huge ripple effect that comes from constitutional change where the attorneys are going to be front and center.

So here’s some other things we’ve seen when it comes to constitutional conventions and public hearing processes. I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time on this but...one of the things I wanted to mention briefly is that it’s important for nations who are going down this constitution reform road to not automatically treat it as a one-shot deal. Often because of those political pressures, often because of the short-term windows, there’s a sense of urgency, there’s a sense of...and often it’s because of responding to crisis. There’s this sense of, ‘We’ve got to get it all done at once. We’ve only got one shot at the apple on this. We’ve got to collapse absolutely everything into this constitutional reform process that we’re currently engaged in. It’s basically an all-or-nothing proposition.’ And where that can really handicap tribes is almost invariably there’s going to be one issue or a couple of issues that are so divisive, that are so controversial that at some point they’re going to threaten to derail the process altogether. Often it’s things like citizenship. ‘Do we want to reduce our blood quantum criteria for citizenship? Do we want to get rid of it altogether?’ I can guarantee you that’s going to be controversial. It can be things like elections, it can be things like terms of office, it can be things like, ‘Do we want our elected officials to be fluent in the language of the people, the first language of the people?’

I worked with one tribe where that blew up the whole thing. They agreed on a bunch of other stuff, but the reform committee was divided right down the middle over that question and instead of saying, ‘Well, let’s set that one aside and proceed with what we agree upon,’ they said, ‘No, because we understand we’ve only got one shot at this, that’s our thinking, then it’s all or nothing,’ and it turned out to be nothing. And I read their draft constitution, it had some amazing things in it, some amazing things that only would have come from them. It is not something that any federal government bureaucrat would have ever dreamed up. It was definitely unique to them, but all that was lost because of disagreement over one thing that probably could have been tabled and an innovative solution could have been crafted over time and it could have been voted on separately.

And then when we’re seeing tribes abandon the Secretary of Interior approval clause and basically saying, ‘We’re going to leave it up to ourselves to determine how our constitution is going to be amended moving forward,’ a lot of thought needs to be given to that because you don’t want amending the constitution to be too easy because then it can be subject to the political whims of the day, the political, internecine fights of the day. You want to make it pretty difficult to change. Not impossible to change, but pretty difficult to change.

Another thing that more and more tribes are considering are older cultural solutions. If you look at some of the new constitutions that are being developed up in Canada by First Nations who are developing new constitutions either by abandoning the Indian Act or often they’re developing them in conjunction with these treaty processes that they’re going through with the provinces up there, some amazing innovative efforts to re-integrate governance principles, time-honored governance principles that are Indigenous to their own cultures. And it’s really fascinating and I think often we see First Nations in Canada looking to the tribes in the United States to learn from them about how do you engage in nation building, how do you engage in governance reform? And I think what we’re starting to see is that tribes in the U.S. have a...can learn a great deal from First Nations in Canada when it comes to constitutional reform and re-integrating culture. And not just culture in sort of the abstract, but culture in the ways that Indigenous nations lived traditionally, in the ways they thrived traditionally, the sophisticated governance mechanisms they had developed and honed over centuries and millennia to ensure their survival, ensure their prosperity. They’re bringing those things forward and they’re sort of tweaking them, they’re adapting them to meet the challenges that they face today in the 21st century.

So just some more information about some tips on the referendum process and again I think as attorneys this is where you’ll likely play a role. There’s the question of the secretarial election process, which is a federal election and then there’s the tribal election process where the tribal citizens come together and vote on this new constitution. And I won’t go through all these, but here’s an overview of some of the emerging best practices we’re seeing when it comes to the process of constitution reform.

And the one I added here is that when nations, and in particular constitutional reform bodies that they set up, have this conscious thought in mind that, ‘At the foundation of the work that we engage in on constitution reform and in the process of engaging the people about reform, we really need to set it up around two litmus tests of success and that’s trust and ownership.’ And basically the thinking is that, ‘We’ve got to do...we know the people, we’ve got...we know what the deterrents will be to them fully engaging this process. We’ve got to figure out, 'How do we overcome those obstacles, how do we engender in them a sense of trust in the process, which over time will ultimately lead to ownership in the result?’ Trust in the process and ownership in the result, and if you don’t have those things, you’re going to end up with that outcome where it was worse than what you started with."

Related Resources


In this highlight from the presentation "Defining Constitutions and the Movement to Remake Them," Ian Record discusses two of the many challenges that Native nations typically encounter when they move to change their existing constitutions or develop new ones.


For Native nations, establishing and sustaining the good governance necessary to determine and then achieve their strategic priorities hinges on citizen engagement: the ability of a nation and its government to consult and educate its citizens about the major decisions it makes and implements in…


In this highlight from the presentation "The Process of Constitutional Reform: The Challenge of Citizen Engagement," NNI's Ian Record lays out two critical overarching tasks that those charged with leading a nation's constitutional reform effort must undertake.