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Tribe, race and greed

Parsing the language of a Flathead election



A full-page political advertisement in the most recent edition of the Char-Koosta News repeats the word “greed” 54 times.

It’s not clear, at first glance, how the ad’s backers want tribal members on the Flathead Reservation to vote in an election scheduled for Jan. 18. But it is clear what’s on everyone’s mind.

The advertisement is part of the debate over a proposed constitutional amendment to ease membership requirements of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes from one-fourth blood quantum to lineal descendency. The Char-Koosta News is the official news organ of the tribes.

Because land and money are at stake, activists like Regina Parot and Wilbert Michel, who sit on opposite sides of the debate, have naturally resorted to the language of “greed” in their ads. But because race and tribal identity are also at stake, the lexicon of this election has been expanded to include vices such as “jealousy” and doomsaying forecasts such as “prepare to suffer.” The proposed amendment is the only measure on the ballot.

When Parot casts her vote in favor of the change, she’ll be trying to correct an injustice that prevents one of her sons, but not both, from being eligible to inherit the trust land she occupies south of Polson. Parot is co-chair of the amendment’s sponsor, the Split Family Support Group.

“My trust land can’t go to my oldest son because he’s not enrolled,” Parot says. “But he’s the one that would come live on it.”

When Michel casts his vote against the change, he’ll be trying to protect the cultural and financial integrity of the tribes. Let too many people in and membership will become meaningless, he says. Michel is president of the Flathead Indian Reservation Defense Organization, the main opposition group.

“We’ll end up with blond, blue-eyed Indians,” Michel says. “And this will affect federal support, health care, housing, and our hunting rights. All the resources of this reservation will be affected.”

If it passes, the amendment will open membership to the tribe’s entire family tree, not just to people with the equivalent at least one full-blooded Salish, Kootenai or Pend Oreille grandparent.

A demographer’s report commissioned by the tribal council forecasts that with passage of the amendment, membership would double immediately, from almost 7,000 members to about 14,000 members, and grow to around 20,000 members in 20 years. On the other hand, the report predicts that membership will begin to dwindle in about 10 years due to out-of-tribe marriage if the one-fourth blood degree requirement remains in effect.

The proposed change has been in and out of federal court in Missoula ever since enough signatures were gathered to put it on the ballot. In November, Parot and her group sued the Bureau of Indian Affairs for not holding the election in mid-December, as they felt was required by the tribes’ constitution. A federal judge denied their requested injunction because they couldn’t demonstrate the harm in waiting a month. Then in December, Michel and his group requested a temporary restraining order to stop the election, or at least delay it long enough to add a third choice to the ballot. The federal judge denied their motion as well.

Proponents of the change argue that the current method has created “split families” that need to be mended, since tribal membership was based on birth place, not blood relation, prior to 1960. In 1959, for example, anyone born to a tribal family living within the borders of the reservation was enrolled regardless of blood quantum.

That’s why one of Parot’s sons is an enrolled member and the other is not. Her oldest son was born out of state in the late 1950s, while Parot and her husband were living in Oklahoma, which made him ineligible. But her youngest son, who was born after Parot and her husband returned to the reservation, was eligible even though he doesn’t meet the one-fourth blood requirement.

Parot says more is at stake in the proposed change than just making sure her sons are treated equally. Because the one-fourth blood degree requirement is an obvious dead-end for the tribes, as confirmed by the demographer’s report, the future of the tribes depends on changing membership rules.

“Sooner or later we’re going to run out of Indians,” Parot says. Opponents of the change argue that membership based on lineal descendancy will reduce funds for federal programs such as health care, eliminate tribal services such as housing, and damage hunting and fishing rights. As for the long-term impacts of the proposed change, Michel reaches the opposite conclusion about the future of the tribes as Parot.

“Once they dilute our blood, we will end up like the Cherokee, where there are more white people than Indians,” Michel says. “And the federal government will say, hey, we don’t have any Indians anymore.”

Either way, the concept of what constitutes an “Indian” is at the heart of the election. And inevitably, because the political atmosphere is so charged with race and tribal identity, proponents and opponents have turned mean.

Michel disputes Parot’s argument that identity is based on tribal culture and that culture can be taught to anyone who wants to learn, regardless of blood quantum.

“When I go to a cultural event—I’m talking sacred stuff—I don’t see these people who claim to be Indians,” Michel says. “I don’t see them at our lodges and our ceremonials. They say they go, but they mean powwows. That’s like circus entertainment.”

And Parot disagrees with Michel’s assertion that lineal descendancy is about getting a share of tribal benefits and that an expanded membership will bankrupt the tribes.

“We don’t place much stock in those arguments,” Parot says. “We know those resources are manageable. And the people we’re talking about already have their own jobs. They don’t rely on tribal services.

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