Damon Williams (top left) and Mark Fox (bottom left) agree to a paper debate with me (right)
I’ve done a good share of work at getting policy around issues developed and getting people to elected office. This world, especially in tribal politics can be one that is most polarized, charred earth landscape I have ever experienced. In the world of tribal politics much can be done in four years and all that can change with a new administration. The prevailing narrative in tribal elections is very much a good vs. evil fight where there is profound mischaracterization of the other and side stories of why candidates are not good enough to lead.
In the middle of this arena is an enormous number of our members who our educators, parents, students, common people who want a different conversation about governance, for whom a new form of leadership is critical. Chairman Candidates Mark Fox and Damon Williams hope to take on this role. Are they ready? We need leaders who will move past the polarized and articulate and fight for new possibilities. We need leaders who are not afraid to name power, who seek solutions with community, who read history and who pay attention to what the data is telling us about who is and is not thriving in our current governance system. We need leaders whose deepest commitment is to those with the least power and the most to lose—our CHILDREN. These leaders must be brave.
Voters made their decision during our tribal primary on the top two candidates. Both are attorneys, both are family men, both who have vowed a commitment to the people of the great Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation. I for one, have not made a decision as of this writing. I had a few questions for our chairman candidates, narrowed down to six questions. I want to thank Mark Fox (MF) and Damon Williams (DW) for providing responses given word limits and deadlines. I know if the opportunity to give voice to these questions, the candidates would be willing. These answers are unedited. Thank you again for responding and good luck gentlemen in the general election.
What are three priorities you believe would have the greatest impact on improving the lives of all of our members?
MF: Although we have many needs to prioritize and address on Fort Berthold, I share the following.
- We have to develop and utilize tribal resources and revenue in the most effective way to improve the standard of living for ALL our membership; regardless of who you are or where you live. Too many of our people have been ignored or “left out” when it comes tribal policy or benefit programs. We will soon have enough revenue to LEAVE NO ONE BEHIND! This should mean increased assistance to help our people deal with day to day life, and the difficulties they face. By properly managing our resources, the tribal government can provide free of charge important things such as education, health care, and basic necessities. Using our resources more effectively also means protecting and preserving for future use the tribes most valuable resources: the land, water, and our people.
- Improve our tribes’ current fiscal management system, assure accountability to constituents, and maximize return on investment to generate additional revenue we can then utilize for beneficial programs and disbursement to members of our nation. We must design and implement an effective means of assessing the needs of our people and then prioritize our expenditure policy to meet those needs! Through communication and input by the people, our Tribal Business Council will fiscally manage our assets in the most positive and impacting manner. In simplest terms: we cut the waste and improve how our government spends our tribal revenue on behalf of the people!
- The third and most important priority is to change and REFORM our tribal government! Our current system of government is plagued by mismanagement, corruption, and self-dealing activity as a direct result of TOO MUCH POWER IN THE HANDS OF THE FEW! We must change how our government operates by increasing the number of those responsible for making decisions, incorporating true separation of powers (3 branches) and checks and balances, while establishing a government that is more deliberate and transparent, responsive to the needs of the people, costs less to operate, and prioritizes revenue expenditures for direct benefits (e.g. peoples fund, per capita payments, affordable housing, etc).
DW: One of our main priorities is to complete is an overall and detailed analysis of the Tribe’s finances. We must know where we are at financially in terms of both tribal revenue and expenditures. After completion of the analysis, we must institute a change in our overall budget policies to move most our current revenue into special trust accounts for future generations. Historically, the Tribe has operated within a funding system where most of our revenue was derived from the federal government. In that system, we had to spend 100% of our funding in order to qualify for the same funding in the next fiscal year.
Today, we are moving beyond the federal-only funding system to one where most of our funding is generated by oil and gas tax revenue. We can still save and invest sixty (60%) percent of our oil and gas revenue for the benefit of our future generations while maintaining a general fund budget to meet all our current needs. We must create special trust accounts to fund critical tribal programs: education, healthcare, housing, elders, veterans, infrastructure, environmental, cultural preservation and future community projects. These trust funds will generate interest income in perpetuity to meet those critical needs that we as a tribe hold as sacred and vital. Further, we will protect the Special Trust Accounts from the tribal council intrusion through use of a provision that requires a referendum vote of the people to utilize the Special Trust Accounts for any other purpose.
The second priority is a true revision of the Tribe’s Constitution. In the past and in the current election, the Chairman / candidates have dictated to the members what the changes to the constitution and our government should be. Their own egos and personal interests motivate these proposed changes, and those changes to our government system are representative of the true will of the membership. As Chairman, I will have the first Tribal Constitutional Convention where all members can participate whether in person or remotely via available technology, and they will decide what our constitution should be. We will utilize experts in constitutional law and tribal constitutional revision to serve as facilitators to the membership in their deliberations. We can begin with the 2006 Draft Constitution that is already in existence. In the first quarter of 2015, the Tribal Constitutional Convention will convene and the people will discuss issues that have promised by the past and current Chairman and candidates: separation of powers, referendum, enrollment, representation, delineation of the actual powers of tribal business council, protection of individual and landowner rights and others.
After the First Convention has reviewed, discussed and approved each Article of the Draft Constitution, we will send out the new draft to each enrolled member for review and comment. After a sixty (60) day review, the Tribal Constitutional Convention will reconvene and go over the comments / issues. At the end of the Convention, the members participating will vote to move the finished document out to the entire membership for a Secretarial Election. If the Secretarial Election approves the proposed Constitution, we will have a new Tribal Constitution by the end of 2015. This is the only way we will have real reform of our government and we will finally see the birth of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation.
The third priority I am proposing that will have the most impact on all our members is the return of the minerals beneath Lake Sakakawea back to the heirs of the original Allottees. When our lands were flooded in 1950’s, our members and our tribe lost much of our identity and we were irreparably harmed socially, culturally and economically. The return of those mineral interests back to the heirs will give back what does not belong to the Tribe. We cannot treat our own members in the same manner that the Federal Government has treated us as a Tribe and as Indian people.
Our citizens often debate oil production on a scale ranging from the financial benefit of least restrictive drilling efforts to prioritizing environmental protection as the primary goal. Do you believe there is a balance, and if so, what does that balance look like?
MF: I am a staunch advocate of what I refer to as “Responsible Development” for oil and gas production on Fort Berthold. By sitting down with the oil industry and figuring out together how to continue development in such a way as to least endanger the environment and ensure that our children and grandchildren have a safe and healthy place to live!!! Fossil fuel development in western ND has a limited life, and we must demand that oil industry respect the fact that our people will be living here long after the oil is gone! Those who wish to continue business with our tribe and reservation must understand that they must make long-term commitments to invest in protecting our land, water, people, and way of life! Acceptance by industry of our people’s desire to protect our environment not only guarantees a place to live for our younger generations, but will ensure that long-term oil/gas development will continue because we are doing it RESPONSIBLY! This is the BALANCE we must have, which will allow our people to continue to enjoy royalty as well as other economic opportunities, without sacrificing the beautiful land we call Home!
DW: As a government, we have a duty to use our regulatory authority to ensure the responsible development of the Reservation. We cannot continue to enact ordinances and regulations without proper study and technical knowledge. The membership should demand a Chairman who understands what and how tribal laws & regulations should work, but also that person have an understanding that we must balance the tribal interests with the individual interests of the tribal membership at large.
One of the most fundamental flaws of our current government is that there is no remedy against the tribal government for when the government harms an individual member. You cannot regulate and harm the membership with impunity without ruling our tribe as a dictatorship. In meeting and talking to our membership on and off the reservation, they have shared their concerns, distrust and overall disgust of our tribal government and same old recycled leadership. We can only protect our people and our lands with a Chairman that is untainted by political favors to the past administration and industry influence. We must have a Chairman who doesn’t speak in half-truths and misrepresent themselves for personal or political gain. We must demand a Chairman who knows the law and is willing to make all those who work for the people to act in a fair and lawful manner.
Many families on our reservation have been disrupted by intergenerational trauma and substance abuse. What do you view as the best way to help our families and communities to be empowered to take ownership of breaking the cycle of dysfunction? Are there programs already doing this work?
MF: Some programs have been doing a good job for decades, and we need to commend them and support their continued efforts. But the advent of the oil boom has brought additional hardship and burdens in contending with our nation’s problem with substance abuse. To date, our tribal government has failed in responding to this latest challenge. Our tribal nation’s revenue increases daily, but currently our government does not prioritize at a level necessary to combat substance abuse and make an actual difference! If I’m elected, this will change! Not only will we strategize and improve effective outreach and prevention, but we will focus on major initiatives such as building our own Drug Treatment Center and supporting programs that have a significant impact to reduction of drug and alcohol abuse! But it starts with the tribal government itself and leading by example of the change we seek! This includes mandatory drug-testing, starting with the Tribal Business Council, and all those who are employed by our doing business on behalf of our nation!
DW: The only way the tribal government can really begin to empower and assist in healing our people is to allocate real resources to combat these societal issues. We can use our resources to employ more trained law enforcement and station those officers in our communities. We can improve our court system to allow for alternative sentencing in order to give our at-risk membership a chance at improving their lives.
We must build a modern treatment facility on our reservation that can begin the healing process of those addicted members and their families. It begins with a real understanding of what is happening to our members and a desire to make actual change happen. We must move back to a humble style of leadership that encompasses an approach of bring all our members back to the Path of the People instead of the type of governance that is driven by an ego driven “me” first mentality.
Most of the employees in the tribal programs that work in those areas are trying to meet the demands of those positions: law enforcement, tribal health, social services, CHR, mental health and Tribal Court. However, those programs need to know both financially and morally that we support them and their efforts. It seems tragically ironic that the past and current management of the Tribe talk about supporting those departments and their employees, yet consistently fail to support them and their efforts year after year. All those agencies except for key political appointees are underfunded and underpaid by the Tribe and at times crucified for doing their jobs. If we are going to really tackle these issues for the betterment of our members, we must remember that those front-line individuals need our support and encouragement each and every day because the jobs they do are not easy and often emotionally draining. We owe each of those individuals who work in those departments a great deal of thanks for their commitment to the their jobs and their communities.
When there is such a rapid rate of change it should be no surprise that the MHA Nation’s citizens will question our elected leaders about the measure of their communication and accountability. Regardless of who votes for you, you will be everyone’s leader if elected. What actions will you take to respond to the curiosity and inquiries of the citizens to maintain their confidence in fulfilling your duties?
MF: Communication and accountability to its constituents is at the core of what is necessary for good governance! It is the responsibility of the Tribal Business Council to keep our membership informed as to ALL aspects of what our government is doing! Transparency is essential to this process! Tribal members should have the opportunity to understand our tribal budget (and participate in its formulation), revenues received, expenditures made, government actions contemplated, and all business activities being conducted or proposed! This responsibility can be supported by quarterly financial reports, broadcasting and recording of all TBC meetings for those who cannot attend, community forums, and dissemination of information by publication and internet! This will help build the confidence of our people in our tribal government system, as well as address their basic right to be informed!
DW: We begin by actually communicating with all the membership as to how our governments operates by disclosing the annual budget and quarterly statements as to how our tribal funds are be utilized. The level of secrecy used by our past chairman cannot work when we are now dealing with billions of the people’s money instead of just hay bales and tribal vehicles. The Chairman must realize that he works for the people and the people do not work for him.
As Chairman, we will provide a referendum vote provision that will protect each of the Special Trust Accounts we create to provide funding in perpetuity for our critical programs. If the current or future leadership of our tribe attempt to borrow, encumber or use any of the interest income or principles of the Special Trust Accounts for any other purpose without the membership’s approval, the people will be able to stop such actions through injunction or lawsuit. We must protect ourselves from ourselves when we are dealing with the amount of money the Tribe is forecasted to receive in the coming years.
The Tribe must also provide a referendum approval process to allow the membership the right to approve any expenditure or investment that exceeds a certain threshold. Large investments or purchases that use the membership’s money must have their approval before any type of action is approved by the Tribal Business Council or entered into by the Chairman. We must engage real expertise to help protect and make our tribal revenues grow for the benefit of all current and future tribal members.
Finally, we will enforce the ethics ordinance upon all elected and appointed officials. As a licensed attorney, I must follow all laws, whether state, federal or tribal. Personal & professional ethics and simply refraining from potential conflicts of interest should not have to be written into laws for our Chairman to act and govern appropriately. As an attorney, I have had to operate under a stricter set of rules then our Tribal Ethics Ordinance for my entire career. I will advocate that all our leadership adhere to a higher standard of ethics to regain the trust and confidence of the membership.
There are two ways to look at self-determination. One is simply under PL 638 where we have a trust relationship with our federal trustee. The other is our ability to exercise our ancestral rights of self-rule to identify, organize and act as a nation. What changes, if any, in our current system of governance would you support making?
MF: It is my position that we need to radically-change our mind set and perception as a tribe what “self-determination” means for our people! We must continue to hold the federal government’s “feet to the fire” to fulfill its trust obligation, to compensate us for what has been taken away from us as an indigenous nation. But we must also accept the fact that the federal government will NEVER take full measure to reestablish what our nation once had, but lost due to failed federal policy! Our government and people must stop waiting for rectification to happen!
We must begin to take BOLD steps to become a nation whose future depends on itself and not others! That means re-gaining and re-assuming our OWN economy, especially in light of the recent oil/gas development that exploded on our lands! We must position ourselves to export our own products and commodities to outside markets, and generate our own energy by incorporating and developing technologies for RENEWABLE sources! We must learn to grow and consume our own food including mass farm products and processing our own beef from local tribal ranchers! And we must take sound measures to establish our own credit and financial systems of capital, while spurring opportunities for individual tribal business development! We must become the leader and prominent example to Indian Country in what it means to be a sovereign nation that truly determines the course of its own growth and prosperity!
DW: We must seek a balance between our legal rights as a Sovereign Indian Nation and those responsibilities owed to us by the Federal Government. It is too easy to just say we are sovereign and ignore the huge debt owed to us by the United States. We cannot disregard all resources available to our Tribe in order to address all issues affecting our membership and our lands.
The lack of sufficient federal funding and the real impact of societal problems on Fort Berthold require the Tribe to appropriate its own funds to address these issues. We need more qualified law enforcement to help protect our people and our communities. We also need to treat those who protect our families with their lives as valuable members of our communities. We need to build and operate a full-scale drug and alcohol treatment facility on the reservation to help treat and heal our at-risk membership. We need to protect our lands through real environmental regulation and enforcement. We also need to protect and encourage the preservation of the language and culture of all three tribes. All these activities and others will require sufficient tribal funds to address immediately and into the future.
At the same time, the federal government also must bear some or most of those costs with regard to our lands and our people. Healthcare, Environmental and Criminal enforcement, Illegal Drug enforcement and any current federal duty must be enforced to its statutory and legal mandate. We must continue to push, demand and litigate if the federal trustee does not meet its legal duties to us as a Tribe and Indian people. We cannot let the federal government forget what is owed to our people.
Governance includes how we organize ourselves, how we make decisions, how we settle disputes, creating the rules of law, and how this aligns with our core values as the MHA Nation. What kind of manager of governance will you be? and What are indicators that we should look for to measure the success of our tribal government?
MF: My ability to manage relies heavily on cost effectiveness and efficiency! Only through strong organization and constant due diligence can we avoid the wasteful spending that plagues many governments! This means decreasing or eliminating government expenditures on what our people deem as unnecessary or unimportant! Efficiency comes into play where we strive to meet government responsibilities without excessive costs, duplication of services, and having a comprehensive plan and strategy on how to maximize tribal development and implement beneficial services to the people! Basic indicators of government success would include such things as reduction in crime, unemployment, and homelessness! Indicators would also include an increase in businesses owned by tribal members, increased participation in effective tribal programs, fewer members living in poverty, and decreases in negative impacts to our environment!
DW: As Chairman, I will push our Tribal Business Council and our tribal employees to follow all laws and regulations as we have that legal duty to the membership to operate in an ethical and lawful manner. I will allow our program directors and administrators to manage their departments without creating a dictatorship type of government that we have all suffered under during the last four years. I will eliminate the “management team” of political enforcers who only served one person and not the entire tribal business council. Anyone who is willing to work hard for the entire membership will have opportunities with our Tribe and our tribal entities.
We have to move beyond our current style of government that creates an ego driven chairman and move back to one where success is not just measured at election time but how the lives of all members are improved and protected. We must have a government that is fiscally responsible and transparent so all members are fully engaged and informed as to what is happening with the membership’s money. We must be truly proactive and engaged when we regulate and manage the affairs and lands of our tribe.
Leadership and success of the Tribe must be measured in how the much the people who need the most help are treated and provided sufficient opportunities to improve their quality of life. The success of our Chairman should be measured in how many people he can truly help and how he was able to do that without sacrificing his integrity, character and his own identity. We cannot rely on the same recycled “good old” boy type of Chairman who tells you what he will do or what he has claimed to have done. We need a Chairman who looks to the people for guidance and counsel. Our success will be measured by lives of our future generations and how we as Indian people collectively worked to change our quality of all our lives.