Claiming Turtle Mountain's Constitution: The History, Legacy, and Future of a Tribal Nation's Founding Documents

Claiming Turtle Mountain's Constitution: The History, Legacy, and Future of a Tribal Nation's Founding Documents

Claiming Turtle Mountain's Constitution: The History, Legacy, and Future of a Tribal Nation's Founding Documents

Claiming Turtle Mountain's Constitution: The History, Legacy, and Future of a Tribal Nation's Founding Documents

Synopsis

In an auditorium in Belcourt, North Dakota, on a chilly October day in 1932, Robert Bruce and his fellow tribal citizens held the political fate of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in their hands. Bruce, and the others, had been asked to adopt a tribal constitution, but he was unhappy with the document, as it limited tribal governmental authority. However, white authorities told the tribal nation that the proposed constitution was a necessary step in bringing a lawsuit against the federal government over a long-standing land dispute. Bruce's choice, and the choice of his fellow citizens, has shaped tribal governance on the reservation ever since that fateful day.



In this book, Keith Richotte Jr. offers a critical examination of one tribal nation's decision to adopt a constitution. By asking why the citizens of Turtle Mountain voted to adopt the document despite perceived flaws, he confronts assumptions about how tribal constitutions came to be, reexamines the status of tribal governments in the present, and offers a fresh set of questions as we look to the future of governance in Native America and beyond.

Excerpt

On an otherwise pleasantly temperate day in the summer of 2009 I found myself trapped inside of a quiet, wood-paneled courtroom in Belcourt, North Dakota. I was on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians Reservation nervously awaiting an important argument before the tribal court. Like many who are called to court, I was afraid of an uncertain future and unsure of how the day’s events would unfold. Unlike many who are called to court, I was sitting in one of the judges’ seats.

I was about a half of a year into my first term as an associate justice on the Turtle Mountain Tribal Court of Appeals when the court needed to hold an emergency session on that summer day. the dispute was of a nature to insidiously foster some of the worst assumptions about tribal government: the tribal chairperson had sought to use his authority to remove the entire tribal council, and the council responded by seeking to use its authority to remove the chairperson. As the dispassionate third branch of the government, my fellow justices and I were tasked with essentially deciding whether either the chairperson or the council was legally entitled to throw the other out of office.

Perhaps succumbing to some of the stereotypes that cases like this help to perpetuate, I skittishly wondered before the hearing whether my career as an associate justice was about to be over before it really began. Would I and/or the other justices be next on the list of those that some other branch of the government sought to remove? Luckily, as the hearing began, I was able to put my fears aside and, before long, it began to feel like just another one of the oral arguments to which I was quickly beginning to become accustomed. Ultimately, the court decided that the tribal constitution allowed for the council to pass an ordinance instituting a removal process, but that no such process was currently enacted within the Tribal Code—the body of law for the tribal nation. As a consequence, neither party’s attempts at removal were valid. When it was all said and done, everyone got to keep their jobs, including me—as of this writing I am near the end of my second term as an associate justice.

The relatively benign conclusion to these events has allowed me to often render the case into a breezy anecdote about the potential pratfalls and . . .

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