Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Results of an election held on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation in January have been accepted by the regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Some tribal members, including Chief Tribal Judge Gilbert Belgarde, had questioned whether the election was carried out properly. Belgarde sent the BIA a legal opinion arguing that the election results should be thrown out.
"The secretarial election has been approved," Jim Steele Sr., tribal operations specialist for the Rocky Mountain Region of the BIA, said Monday.
Steele's office reviewed the election after James Montes, the BIA field officer at Rocky Boy, gave the election preliminary approval in January. Steele said that the decision to approve the election was reviewed and signed by BIA regional director Keith Beartusk on Friday.
Steele said his office took no action on Belgarde's opinion.
"It was ignored, basically because when he submitted it, he said this is an opinion, not a challenge, so we took him verbatim," Steele said.
He added that the office would have looked at the opinion differently if it had been a challenge.
The Jan. 6 election asked enrolled voters of the Chippewa Cree Tribe to approve five changes to the tribe's 1935 constitution and bylaws. Voters approved measures to increase criminal misdemeanor penalties, change the date of primary elections, prohibit felons from seeking office, and delete a constitutional provision that revoked tribal membership if members who lived outside the reservation did not return every 10 years to renew it. Another provision makes tribal judge positions appointed rather than elected. Belgarde has said he suspects he would lose his job if the tribal council was given the power to appoint judges.
Belgarde maintained that the local BIA office administering the election did not properly notify enrolled tribal members as required by federal law. The BIA was required by law to administer the election.
Montes has said he did everything in his power to notify the public properly.
Steele said his office found no problem with the election.
"It appears from my past experience that they've done things quite well, actually," he said.
Now, he said, the tribe just has to put the new language into the constitution and bylaws, send it back to the BIA regional office for a final review, and then the laws will go into effect.
Montes said he wants to have the changes made by the end of the month.
"I think it's kind of up to me now to get the language finalized and the constitution updated," he said.
Belgarde said Monday he still thinks the election was not done properly.
"I still fail to see how 161 people could be representative of 5,000 people. And I think the trust responsibility has gone awry," he said, referring to the federal government's responsibility to oversee the election. "They should have appointed a constitutional committee and got certified letters out to the public."
About 3,000 election notices and registration forms were sent out to the tribe's adult members, Montes has said. About 12 percent of them - 374 - registered to vote in the special election, and 43 percent of those - 161 - voted. Bad weather was partially to blame for poor turnout, he said.
Belgarde said today his opinion could be considered a challenge, but that he did not identify it as one because a challenge would have had to be filed by a tribal member outside the court.
He said he thought his opinion should have been taken into account.
"Any right-thinking person would consider that as a challenge," he said.
Belgarde said he will make a decision about his future as tribal judge once the BIA regional office approves the new language. His term expires in November.
If the new language is approved, he said, "I'm getting out and trying to get back in in the capacity of a (tribal) councilman."
Tribal council elections will be held in November.
Chippewa Cree tribal chair Alvin Windy Boy Sr. could not be reached for comment this week. Tribal vice chair Bruce Sunchild declined to comment Monday.
The last time the tribe's 1935 constitution was successfully amended was 1972.