Montana Tribal Members Launch Group to Fight Reservation Corruption

A statewide coalition of Montana tribal members has launched to fight corruption and federal mismanagement of Montana’s Indian Reservations. The group is blasting embattled Blackfeet tribal leader and Democratic State Sen. Shannon Augare as typical of the corruption that so often grips tribal governments.

The formation of the new group — which is apparently still unnamed — was first reported last week by the Havre Daily News when it held its first meeting with tribal members representing seven Montana reservations. The group identified violations of Native American civil rights and corruption on reservations as the biggest issues facing Indian tribes. Those in attendance from the Blackfeet Tribe specifically pointed fingers at Montana state Sen. Augare.

“Three Blackfeet members who spoke, blamed the problem on State Sen. Shannon Augare, a Blackfeet Tribal Council member. They said said he was a power behind the scenes,” wrote Havre Daily News Reporter John Kelleher.

Augare, of Browning, brought much attention to the issues surrounding tribal corruption last May when he was pulled over by a Glacier County Sheriff’s Deputy on the Blackfeet Reservation for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol. When the deputy attempted to take his keys, Augare told him that he had no jurisdiction over tribal members and sped away.

A firestorm of controversy erupted as Blackfeet Tribal Prosecutors appeared hesitant to pursue the case. Eventually Chief Prosecutor Carl Pepion decided to hand the case over to the Montana U.S. Attorney’s Office, which decided to pursue charges. However, Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Willie Sharp Jr. — himself a target of multiple corruption allegations — stated last month that Pepion had no authority to turn the case over to the feds and that the Blackfeet Tribal Council did not want Augare charged in federal court.

Augare continues to argue that the federal government has no right to charge him.

The members of the new anti-corruption group see incidents like these as a major black eye for tribes.

“Leon Veale, who has long been involved in the Blackfeet dissident movement, praised federal officials for charging Augare with driving under the influence, saying he was hiding behind Indian sovereignty laws in trying to avoid prosecution.” writes Kelleher.

Recent incidents showing the corruption of Montana tribal governments are plenty. Last year, it was revealed that Crow tribal officials mismanaged an excavation project leading to the destruction of an ancient bison bone bed. The head of that project, former head of the Crow Tribal Historic Preservation Office, Dale Old Horn, was also placed under federal investigation for the disappearance of $500,000 that was paid to his office to manage the project.

In May, five Chippewa-Cree tribal members — including former Democratic state Rep. Tony Belcourt — were charged with laundering hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal stimulus funds meant to help the tribe build a water pipeline. The Chippewa-Cree also had a recent tribal election invalidated because some were allowed to vote without showing valid tribal ID cards.

In August, six Blackfeet tribal members were charged with embezzling $9.3 million in funds from a troubled youth project they were managing. One those charged was Sen. Augare’s father, Deyle “Shanny” Augare, who was assistant director of the program. Last month, seven Blackfeet tribal members were arrested when about 60 members showed up at tribal headquarters and attempted a takeover of the tribal council.

As many Montana tribes are looking to the development of tribal energy resources as a potential economic boon for depressed reservation economies, some at the meeting worried that continued problems in tribal governance would scare away potential oil and gas projects. One attendee stated that “oil companies are unwilling to come into the reservation and provide much-needed revenue because of the disarray in tribal leadership” according to Kelleher of the Havre Daily News.

In addition to calling attention to corruption within tribal governments, the meeting’s attendees also leveled criticism at the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs for its bureaucracy and inefficiency, rendering it incapable of dealing with tribal corruption. According to Cedric Black Eagle of the Crow Nation, 87 cents of every dollar it spends goes to administrative costs, and only 13 cents make it to the tribes.