Tribal tribulations

Blackfeet council struggles with ousting effort


He’s a human rights advocate. He’s a vocal critic of racial discrimination on Indian reservations who’s held many a conference on racism against Native Americans. His fans will also tell you he’s fought for his people as a state Equal Employment Opportunity Commission officer, a Browning police officer, and a current member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council (BTBC)—Browning’s central government. His last name, Gervais, joins him to a line of Blackfeet leaders, including a former Montana state representative, a former BTBC member, and a local school board member. And within the reservation’s complex kinship networks and political allegiances, tribal elders say his close relationship with leading families like the Old Persons and Running Cranes confers power and influence upon the 48-year-old bail bondsman turned civil rights activist, Rodney “Fish” Gervais.

But a growing number of tribal elders and BTBC members say this activist image doesn’t reflect the Rodney Gervais they know.

“That human rights activist stuff, he’s always used those values to get elected,” says Geraldine Gordon, a Blackfeet tribal member. “It’s a ploy.”

The Montana Highway Patrol in Cut Bank cited Gervais last week for driving with a suspended license, according to the state attorney general’s office. The incident was allegedly his third brush with law enforcement since last June, including one arrest for DUI, documents show. Citing these factors, several elders and one member of the BTBC have demanded his removal. Critics say Gervais is guilty of the same lawlessness he says he’s trying to fight.

Among their complaints: Gervais was cited for DUI February 15 by Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Noel R. Duram, who, according to the incident report, found Gervais behind the wheel of a car that had lodged itself into the snow. Duram noted a “strong odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from Gervais…Gervais informed me that he had had ‘one or two,’” the report states.

“At one point, Gervais begged me to let him go,” Duram’s report continues. “He informed me that he would be suing both the Patrol and myself. [He] informed me that it was a Human Rights Violation.”

Gervais, when asked about the account, says, “That didn’t happen.” Gervais says there was no proof he had alcohol in his system, other than his admission that he’d had one or two drinks.

Following the arrest, in accordance with the Montana Highway Patrol’s agreement with the tribe, Duram transported Gervais to the Blackfeet Tribal Law Enforcement Center. There, according to Duram’s report, Gervais refused field sobriety tests and a breath test in front of a tribal corrections officer and a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officer. He was turned over to tribal law enforcement authorities, and released. Tribal authorities have not prosecuted the case.

The code of conduct for the BTBC, meanwhile, says council members may be removed from office if they are found guilty of “misconduct reflecting on the dignity of the tribe,” including offenses such as public drunkenness. It didn’t take long for tribal elders and the BTBC to cry foul.

In a February 20 letter to the council’s executive committee, BTBC member Paul McEvers suggested that Gervais be “subject to immediate termination.”

“No special considerations or waivers of justice should be afforded to a tribal leader that endangers the lives and well being of the public,” McEvers wrote. “To do so would be parallel to promoting ‘lawlessness’ on the Blackfeet Reservation.”

Five tribal members or elders, in a separate letter to the council March 3, stated, “We expect the council and others to obey the law here and follow the constitution. Otherwise there is a complete breakdown of our society. Our tribal government is not the playground for a select few who can use and abuse it and get away with it…The people are waiting to hear the tribal council has removed Fish Gervais from the council,” the letter concluded.

As of press time, neither Executive Committee Chairman Earl Old Person, nor Vice Chairman Roger Running Crane, had returned phone calls seeking comment on the matter.

Gervais, meanwhile, says he is not worried about his critics. “If the Council wanted to push for removal, I would have to be the one to push it through,” he says.

But critics say the DUI charges are just the beginning. Last June, according to an eyewitness, Gervais was involved in an assault on a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) official at his Browning home.

“He challenged me to a fight and he got worked over,” Gervais says about the altercation. Gervais says he went to the man’s house because he wanted to remove his son from a party there, and things got out of hand.

Tribal Judge David Gordon says he signed a warrant for Gervais’ arrest in the altercation. But the case has apparently not been pursued. (Judge Gordon refused to provide a copy of the warrant. BIA officials in Billings and Browning did not return phone calls seeking information on the case.)

Gervais maintains he has a clean record, and that he wasn’t prosecuted because there wasn’t a complaint. “There was no ruling, it didn’t go anywhere,” he says. “I’m not a criminal, and I have no criminal record.”

Trooper Duram, Gervais says, has been targeting him in response to Gervais’ efforts to spotlight racial profiling by the Highway Patrol on the reservation. Gervais also says Duram’s tribal commission card—which gives an officer enforcement authorities—was invalid at the time of the DUI arrest.

(According to the February 15 arrest documents, Duram phoned tribal prosecutor Mike Connelly as the incident unfolded to ask about the card, and Connelly told him it was valid. A copy of Duram’s commission card, provided to the Independent, confirms it was valid “until terminated” and signed by Blackfeet Chairman Earl Old Person.)

Still, in Gervais’ view, the charges and criticisms are politically motivated. “Ever since I got on the Council,” he says, “my enemies have come out of the woodwork. They’ve turned this into a coup.”

The tribe has the final word, he adds. “My day of judgment will come on election day.”

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