Tim Giago: Tribal governments and democracies
If one takes a deep look into tribal politics one would find a broad spectrum of inter-relationships that overlap. This would include not only tribal government, but also health care, housing, education, and the Indian casinos. Upon closer scrutiny, one might surmise that the pendulum has swung from left of center to right of center in the past 25 years.

Health care, education, housing and the tribally owned casinos are too often caught up in the brand of tribal politics that, in the past, has served to stifle honesty and growth rather than promote it. In all of the processes mentioned above it is becoming a well-worn cliché’ in Indian country that it is “not what you know, but who you know.”

The long history of nepotism runs deep in Indian country because as we say in Lakota, Mitakuye Oyasin, or “We are all related,” and if one is talking about his tiospaye or extended family, that is all well and good, but if one is talking about his relatives in the upper echelons of tribal government, then it is not so good.

Sadly or gladly, there is a strong element of truth in the statement that “we are all related” because familial, or blood relationships, are wide and deep on most Indian reservations. For example, by blood I am related to the Big Crows, Two-Twos, Vocus, Garnettes, Bissonettes, Dubrays, Brewers, Mills, Fergusons, Tapios, Galligos, and the list goes on, and these are all large and prominent families on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. And this kind of familial connection runs deep on Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River and all of the other reservations in South Dakota.

Therefore it is not uncommon for an elected official to make a special concession to a blood relative, oftentimes not even knowing they are related. When my daughter started to date boys from the reservation I told her to be sure and find out about their relatives because there is always that possibility, and it is strong, that she may be related to her date.

When it comes to finding qualified people to fill some of the very few jobs that are available on some reservations the tribal leaders often find it nearly impossible to find someone with the right qualifications that are not related to them. But, as most reservation residents know, too often this is the main reason they are hired; they are related to the chief.

It is not uncommon for relatives of the chief to be awarded hard to come by houses even though they have to be jumped over tribal members that have been on the waiting list to get a house for a very long time. It happens all of the time.

As can be imagined, this often results in relatives being placed in job positions, often very important jobs, for which they have no qualifications. And in a society, even on the Indian reservations, that has become highly technical, men and women are often elected to the tribal councils, a position of powerful leadership, simply because they have the largest voting bloc (translates to: Very Large Family) on the reservation. The family scion, or elder, can usually tell his family and extended family, how he or she wants them to vote. Although tribal members may question their qualifications after they are elected, majority vote rules and little can be done to change that because the Indian reservations are a Democracy.

I got my first taste of tribal politics in 1983. I ran for the office of vice president against the incumbent. As the votes were tallied on election night, the more traditional districts compiled their votes much faster than the large districts and as I listened to the results as reported by Tom Casey on KILI radio, I saw a pattern develop. I began to win all of the traditional districts starting with Wanblee, Potato Creek, Medicine Root, LaCreek, Pass Creek, Red Shirt Table, Oglala, Oglala Number 4, Wakpamni, Porcupine, and then the two largest districts, districts that are always the last because of the numbers, Manderson and Pine Ridge, came in, and although I had been leading all night, after the two large districts completed their count, I lost by about 90 votes against the incumbent. Later I heard rumors that many of my votes were tossed into the trash can in Pine Ridge. Any truth to it: I really don’t know, but I considered it a great experience, and I was honored to have carried the votes of the traditionalists.

Tribal governments are microcosms of the United States government and have been evolving in much the same fashion. For good or bad, they are Democracies within a Democracy, and their successes and their failures, in many ways, can be traced to their teachers.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2008. He can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com.

More Tim Giago:
Tim Giago: Native Sun a watchdog for tribes, public (10/21)
Tim Giago: Can ceremonies save Sioux people? (10/19)
Tim Giago: 'Wizard' author backed genocide (10/12)
Tim Giago: Indians left out of bison roundup (10/9)
Tim Giago: Racism against Native Americans (10/5)
Tim Giago: Another nail in the coffin of smokers (9/28)
Native Sun Editorial: Mascots are not an honor (9/22)
Tim Giago: Leaving the anger and the meanness (9/21)
Tim Giago: Indian Reorganization Act turns 75 (9/14)
Tim Giago: They could not kill Lakota spirituality (9/7)
Tim Giago: Don't take IHS criticism at face value (8/31)
Tim Giago: Coffee and bagels with Tim Johnson (8/24)
Tim Giago: Real problems of US health care (8/17)
Tim Giago: Sotomayor puts dent in glass ceiling (8/10)
Tim Giago: Standing ground at Mount Rushmore (8/3)
Tim Giago: Voting Native and voting independent (7/27)
Tim Giago: Rapid City is changing for the better (7/20)
Tim Giago: Frontier mentality still alive in 2009 (7/13)
Tim Giago: The execution of Chief Two Sticks (7/6)
Tim Giago: McDonald's mentality needs revamp (6/29)
Tim Giago: National health care debate and IHS (6/22)
Tim Giago: South Dakota restricts tribal growth (6/15)
Tim Giago: No more status quo for BIA education (6/8)
Tim Giago: Being Indian and being independent (6/1)
Tim Giago: Let Oglala Sioux president do her job (5/27)
Tim Giago: Memorial Day speech at Black Hills (5/25)
Tim Giago: Small victories in battle against mascots (5/18)
Tim Giago: A day of tribal victory at Little Bighorn (5/11)
Tim Giago: Negative Native images in the news (5/4)
Tim Giago: Resolving ownership of the Black Hills (4/27)
Tim Giago: Good things and bad things come in April (4/20)
Tim Giago: An open letter to South Dakota governor (4/13)
Tim Giago: Nostalgia and South Dakota blizzards (4/6)
Tim Giago: An older brother who paved the way (3/30)
Tim Giago: Sticks and stones and Charles Trimble (3/17)
Tim Giago: Pine Ridge team triumphs at tournament (3/16)
Tim Giago: Announcing the Native Sun News (3/9)
Tim Giago: No winners at Wounded Knee 1973 (3/5)
Tim Giago: The real victims of Wounded Knee 1973 (3/2)
Tim Giago: No outrage over abuse of Natives (2/23)
Tim Giago: A perspective on the fairness doctrine (2/16)
Tim Giago: Throwing Tom Daschle under the bus (2/9)
Tim Giago: Native people out of sight, out of mind (2/2)
Tim Giago: Native veteran loses fight against VA (1/26)
Tim Giago: The Wellbriety Journey for Forgiveness (1/19)
Tim Giago: The stolen generations in the U.S. (1/12)
Tim Giago: Indian Country looks to Tom Daschle for help (1/5)