11/01/2009 10:14 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tribal governments: Democracies within a Democracy

By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2009 Native Sun News

November 2, 2009

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