Primary Forces 

Sizing up issues in Saturday’s tribal primary

The race to win a seat on the Flathead Reservation’s tribal council is rarely dull, but this election season the issues are as complex and all-encompassing as ever. Resource and culture preservation, tribal enrollment, employment opportunities and the balance of power in the tribal government are all coming to the forefront. And two districts, Hot Springs and St. Ignatius, don’t even have any incumbents running this year.

Voters, who don’t have to register but must be enrolled as tribal members and reservation residents, will choose a candidate from their district in this Saturday’s primary election. Thirty-two candidates from five districts will be in the race, with the top vote-getter from each district advancing to the general election on Dec. 11.

Although the pre-primary atmosphere has been fairly quiet, tribal enrollment continues to be a hot topic, especially the “split family” issue. Prior to 1960, a child had to be born on the reservation to be enrolled as a tribal member. After 1960, a one-quarter blood quantum was instituted, resulting in some families having both enrolled and non-enrolled children, depending on when and where they were born. Concerns have also been voiced about the possibility of tribes running out of enrollable members within the next generation, and whether Indian blood from another tribe should be included when tallying total blood quantum.

There is some disagreement about how to solve the enrollment question, but many candidates say they support a referendum vote by tribal members to decide which direction to take. Most everyone agrees that the issue must be addressed immediately.

Across the reservation, another constituent gripe is the way the tribal council decides policy. Many charge that if a person cries loud enough to council members, policies will change for just that person, leading to piece-meal implementation. The perspective also persists that the council has too much power and is often self-serving.

But of perhaps greatest significance is the vacancy left by long-time tribal chairman and Hot Springs representative Mickey Pablo. When he passed away this summer, it left not only an emptiness in many people’s hearts, but also a void in the tribal leadership. Pablo was a champion of sovereignty and putting the interests of the people first. He also possessed the rare combination of being soft-spoken and yet uncompromising. The newly seated tribal council will hold its first meeting on Jan. 7 and will elect a new chairperson at that time. Filling Pablo’s sizable shoes will no doubt be a primary concern.

The other incumbent not running for re-election is Mike Durglo Jr. from St. Ignatius. Durglo temporarily moved into his wife’s home in Dixon in 1998, still maintaining a house containing all of his possessions in St. Ignatius. That transitory stay in Dixon was enough to rumple the tribal election committee’s feathers—since regulations require a candidate to physically live in their district for a year preceding an election—and they barred him from running this year. Durglo appealed the decision, but the tribal council upheld the election committee’s determination.

There are also two candidates, Kevin Howlett and Thomas “Bearhead” Swaney, who have served on the tribal council in the past, though in both cases it was at least 15 years ago. Howlett, who resigned after a controversy over his use of a tribally owned backhoe on his own property, recently completed a stint as the head of the tribal education department.

Swaney says his time on the tribal council was limited as well. In his typically outspoken fashion, he surmises his chairmanship was taken away from him because other council members resented the amount of media attention he received over a plan to save sheep on Flathead Lake’s Wildhorse Island.

Another once-contentious candidate is Arlee incumbent Joe Moran, a former tribal judge who sued the tribal council after they granted clemency to a man Moran convicted of domestic abuse. Although that situation had a fair amount of influence over the 1995 tribal council election, the matter was settled out of court. Moran says his current presence on the council indicates a willingness to participate and the maturity of the tribes as a whole.

There are no debates or candidate forums scheduled before Saturday’s primary election, but some candidates are expressing their beliefs in their own words in the Char-Koosta, the official newspaper of the Flathead Nation. The new edition hits newsstands on Friday, Oct. 15; the Oct. 8 issue contains several letters from candidates as well.

But the bottom line is that with so many important issues a part of this election, it’s imperative for voters to simply show up at the polls.

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