Tim Giago: Tribes should include all their citizens

There are 213 enrolled Numunuu (Comanche) residing in the State of New Mexico, according to California attorney Dennis G. Chappabitty, himself a Comanche. He was in Albuquerque last week as the Project Facilitator to discuss the work in progress on the new Comanche Nation Constitution.

The work on the new Constitution has been ongoing for more than two years and the people of the Comanche Nation, whether residing in New Mexico, California, Oklahoma or any other state in the union have a say in how the Constitution will be worded.

The “Public Hearing Process” was held on the beautiful campus of the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque. The fact that only 20 of the 213 citizens of the New Mexico Comanche community showed up for this most important meeting caused some in attendance to talk about the apathy that has plagued the Comanche Nation voters over the past several years.

The new definition of “Citizen of the Comanche Nation” to replace “Tribal Member of the Comanche Nation” caused some attendees to admit that they found the new wording difficult because they had spent most of their lives referring to themselves as “tribal members.” Said one in attendance, “But I guess I can get used to calling myself a citizen of the Comanche Nation because I think it has a better ring to it than tribal member plus it points out that we are citizens of our own Nation.”

Mr. Chappabitty described the old 19-page Constitution as being pretty frayed and dog-eared from it use and misuse over the many years of its existence. The new 34-page Constitution hopes to include many new addition and interpretations along with correcting those portions of the old Constitution that badly needed upgrading, updating and total revision.

This appears to be a process that is taking place in many parts of Indian country. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota is another Indian nation restructuring its Constitution. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma just had provision approved that the Secretary of the Interior will no longer have a say in what goes into their Constitution, which was a major step forward from the days when the Bureau of Indian Affairs had nearly total control over the Cherokee government.

It is a lesson to me that Indian nations such as the Comanche consider all of their people as citizens of their Nation. No matter where they reside they are still permitted to engage in the political processes of the Nation. Among many tribes, including most of them in South Dakota, once a person moves from the reservation they abdicate their right to vote or to run for office. They are not allowed to become involved in planning the budget that includes health, education and the welfare of tribal members. And yet, when it comes to determining the monetary allocations requested by the tribe from the federal government, all tribal members are counted whether they live on or off of the reservation. The higher the body count, the higher the funding.

In other words, once you leave a reservation, say the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, you become a non-citizen. Even those Lakota residing in Rapid City, the birthplace of the famous warrior Crazy Horse, are still considered as “off the reservation.” And if you move back to the reservation in order to run for office, you must prove residency of one year before your name can be placed on the ballot.

Before Tom Short Bull, now president of the Oglala Lakota College, challenged the law that said if you were born off the Pine Ridge Reservation you would not be considered an enrolled member of the tribe, many Lakota were listed as “non-enrolled” and were thus ineligible for many tribal benefits. When Short Bull decided to run for the presidency of the tribe, he challenged his “non-enrolled” status in tribal court and won.

As I listened to the citizens of the Comanche Nation, now residing in New Mexico, discuss revisions to their Constitution, I became more convinced than ever the many other Indian nations that prevent their people living off of the reservation from participating as full citizens, to follow the example of the Comanche Nation and to give back the rights to all of its citizens that were taken from them by the non-Indian bureaucracy.

After all, a United States citizen living in Belgium does not lose his right to vote, but merely votes on an absentee ballot, the same way the citizens of the Comanche Nation residing outside of Oklahoma vote. I believe it is high time all Indian nations change their constitutions to include all of their citizens. (I have a new email address and it is najournalist@msn.com)

Tim Giago is an Oglala Lakota born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He was the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today newspaper and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. His latest book “Children Left Behind, The Dark Legacy of the Indian Missions,” is now available at: order@clearlightbooks.com. The book just won the Bronze Star from the Independent Publishers Awards. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com.

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