Choctaw Nation

Choctaw Nation: Tribal Constitutional Convention Seeks Separation of Powers

A group of Choctaw citizens pursues reform, despite mighty challenges

Viewing the constitution of her beloved Choctaw Nation as out of date, tribal citizen and well-known Democratic tribal activist Kalyn Free is organizing a revolution. She’s calling it a new constitutional convention as she seeks what’s known as a “Bureau of Indian Affairs Secretarial Election” to bring about the changes she and other Choctaw citizens desire.

Successful constitutional modification using a secretarial election at the Kiowa Nation serves as a model for this uphill battle. And Free’s experience working with the Cherokee Nation as its legal counsel has left her and other fellow tribal citizens longing for more separation of powers in the leadership structure of their own tribe.

“I turn green with envy every day thinking this is what I want in my tribe,” says the veteran lawyer who began her career with the U.S. Department of Justice and went on to be the first woman and Native American elected District Attorney of Southeastern Oklahoma.

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Free adds that she wants a government that is concerned about the will of the people.

Starting in January, Free, representing a small group of dedicated reformers, notified the Chief, Assistant Chief, Council, the Department of Interior (DOI) Solicitor General, the DOI Assistant Secretary, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Area Director that if the tribal council would “not enact a new election ordinance that provides for full and open participation by all Choctaws,” they would seek alternative means to achieve their objectives. Free got no response from Choctaw leadership. So on to Plan B.

Section 25 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Parts 81 and 82 describe the secretarial election process in detail. Per the CFR, “A Secretarial election is a Federal election conducted by the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) under a Federal statute or tribal governing document under 25 CFR part 81.”

The recipe for revolution is reasonably logical. In brief, if this is a citizen-led effort such as it is for the Choctaw, this is the process: a tribal citizen acting as a spokesperson must submit a petition verified by the BIA as having the minimum number of required signatures to the Secretary of the Interior requesting the Secretary to call a Secretarial Election. This must be accompanied by the document or amendment language that tribal citizens will vote on. Along with this, the tribe – not the citizens – must submit the names of all tribal citizens 18 years or older.

The local BIA official then conducts a technical review of the document, then submits it to the BIA authorizing official who also makes technical recommendations to the party submitting the document. The authorizing official also consults with Interior’s Office of the Solicitor to ensure its compliance with applicable law, then notifies the spokesperson of the results of the review to allow changes, or approves the document for a vote. The Secretarial Election Board sends voter registration cards to each tribal citizen informing them they must register with the BIA in order to vote on the new constitution or amendments. The document is then put up for a vote open to all qualified voters and conducted by the Secretarial Election Board – a body of officials appointed by the BIA and the tribe and the tribe’s spokesperson for citizen-led efforts. Once validated and counted, the percentage of votes determines the fate of the effort.

Free anticipates that this process may take up to three years given the recent Kiowa experience. Legal challenges are likely as is intransigence on the part of the tribe in validating the signatures for the petition and the ultimate vote, not to mention the BIA bureaucracy involved.

For Free and company, it’s worth the battle. At their July 27-29 Constitutional Convention, there were 23 propositions that the group of about 50 debated in detail. Key for most members were employee protection from retribution for signing the secretarial election petitions since all employees at Choctaw are “at will.” The transparency of council meetings was another prominent issue. At present, the council works as a “committee as a whole” without tribal members present. Members approved by all council members to speak before them can make presentations to council behind their closed doors, but can’t hear those others make. Eliminating the minimum blood quantum to run for government also drew a lot of discussion, as did adding three members at large to the council to represent off-reservation Choctaw citizens.

Free admits she is up against monumental odds, but she says she is willing to go to the mat as many times as it takes to incite constitutional change.

This is a legacy task for her. “A burning desire of mine for decades has been to bring reform to the Choctaw Nation,” she says.

Lisa Reed, director of communications for the Choctaw Nation, noted that the effort to change the tribal constitution is not an “official tribal event.” She said the tribe’s leadership was not available for comment for this article.

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Choctaw Nation: Tribal Constitutional Convention Seeks Separation of Powers

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