LLOYD OMDAHL: It's time to look at reservation governance

North Dakota's two U.S. senators have been taking a particular interest in the well-being and governance of Indian reservations, probably because of recent scandals in social services and foster care.

Lloyd Omdahl

North Dakota's two U.S. senators have been taking a particular interest in the well-being and governance of Indian reservations, probably because of recent scandals in social services and foster care.

This is dangerous territory because as soon as non-Indians start talking about reservation problems, the race card is played. Frank discussion is not necessarily racism, but calling it racism is one way to kill discussion.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has maneuvered the creation of a commission to study problems on reservations. The Heitkamp commission can be effective if it focuses on specific areas, such as education, social welfare and governance.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., has gained approval of federal legislation that would require background checks on participants in Indian foster care programs. This is an attempt to protect children from abuses too common in foster care.

He also has pressed the federal government to do a better job of monitoring expenditures on reservations after the Government Accountability Office reported the misuse and loss of federal funds.


Hoeven is right to be concerned about management and governance practices on reservations. The politics on some reservations is similar to the boss rule that prevailed in major American cities in the latter part of the 19th century, when favoritism and arbitrariness were the ways of doing business.

We need only look at the way the Fighting Sioux logo issue was handled on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The chairman arbitrarily decided that he would not let the tribal members vote on the question. His decision killed the logo because without Standing Rock's approval, the NCAA would not permit use of the logo.

This decision was made after the Spirit Lake Sioux near Devils Lake voted 2-1 in favor of keeping the logo. It is obvious that the Standing Rock chairman blocked the vote because he felt that his constituents would vote to keep the logo if they had the chance.

This sort of autocratic action indicates a serious weakness in the rules of governance on reservations. Obviously, the tribal members who wanted to vote had no established course of action to overrule the decision of the chairman.

Because there are no established rules of procedure, tribal members can become victimized by their leadership. Governing decisions can made without regard to fairness or merit. Too many decisions can be made at the whim of one or two people at the top.

This brings us to the operation of the casinos on reservations. Casinos can exist only with approval of the governor. Unfortunately, we failed to require full transparency of casino operations as a condition for that approval.

In view of the arbitrary nature that creeps into reservation governance, there is reason to wonder about the benefits of reservation gaming. Do all of the members get regular reports on the receipt and disbursements of revenues? Are all tribal members given an equal opportunity to be employed in the casinos?

It is naïve to assume that funds are handled scrupulously and fairly just because they are administered by American Indians for American Indians. The federal government monitors states, cities and counties, so it isn't racism to ask for the same degree of integrity in reservation government and finances.


Here's hoping that Heitkamp's commission will give the procedures of governance and transparency high priority. The rights of the rank-and-file American Indians who are on the outside of the governing loop are being trampled too often by a governance system that is too loose and too arbitrary.

Omdahl, a retired professor of political science at UND, is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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