‘Watch me pull a constitutional crisis out of my hat!’

Upon hearing “moose hunt,” most people assume they’ve stumbled upon a rerun of Sarah Palin’s Alaska and reach for their remote and/or loaded handgun to end the pain.

But in this case, the moose hunt factors into a six-count indictment against three former government officials and marks the latest twist in an ongoing leadership crisis on U.S. soil that would make some post-Soviet Republics blush.

Moose hunts, country music, kangaroo courts, and the tale of a large-scale Native American constitutional crisis after the jump….

Our journey down the rabbit hole of America’s neglected tribal legal framework begins in 2010 and 2011, when the Blackfoot Nation got a bunch of country music stars ginned up and went out to blow away some moose and bears.

I have little regard for country music that doesn’t involve Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash, but I’m going to assume that the country stars involved in these hunts, Josh Thompson and Justin Moore, are popular in parts of the world where they hang pictures of Nick Saban next to their portrait of Jesus. As part of their hunting trips, Thompson and Moore performed concerts for the Blackfeet and had their adventures profiled on The Sovereign Sportsman, an Emmy-winning program about hunting. This is the official breakdown of Thompson’s trip:

The week was launched with an incredible elk hunt featuring Josh Thompson. Sovereign Sportsman staff and Blackfeet Tribal Council members were on-hand to celebrate Josh’s amazing “quarter on” shot to drop the huge 6X6 (record) bull elk.

Co-host, Forrest Parker, dropped an impressive Shiras moose on Day 4 of the outing. And, finally, Eric Richey wraps up the week bagging a large black bear on the final morning of the hunt.

Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes you end up in federal court.

Federal prosecutors have indicted three men, former tribal council members Jay St. Goddard and Jay Wells, and former fish and game manager Gayle Skunkcap Jr., on six felony counts including conspiracy, the illegal sale of tribal wildlife, theft from a tribal government receiving federal funds, and making false statements. According to the feds, the defendants improperly secured hunting tags for the TV shows and used tribal funds without approval to fund the trip.

The defendants pleaded not guilty to all counts.

In fairness to the council, I wouldn’t have thought this guy was famous either.

Using tribal resources to set up public exposure for the Blackfeet sounds entirely reasonable, but the tribal council, headed by chairman Willie Sharp, Jr., claim the defendants conducted these hunts behind the back of the full council and therefore illegally.

Apparently the mass concerts and TV coverage slipped their attention for a couple years.

With a federal prosecution hinging on the word of the ruling council, the elected council itself must be unified in its interpretation of the facts. And it is… now.

Those who question the validity of the federal charges cite the conveniently unified makeup of the tribal council chaired by Willie Sharp, Jr. After expelling St. Goddard from the tribal council for his involvement with the hunts, Sharp axed another rival councilor named Paul McEvers, citing:

Tribal Ordinance No. 67, which reads, according to the Great Falls Tribune: “Whoever forcibly assaults, threatens, practices intimidation upon, or interferes with a Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, upon conviction (may) be fined $500 and Six (6) months imprisonment in the Blackfeet Jail.” The vote to suspend McEvers with pay was four in favor, three against and one abstaining.

As it turned out the four councilors who didn’t join Sharp in labeling McEvers a violent rabble-rouser were not long for the council. Sharp and his majority expelled those four within a week after they attempted to expel Sharp. If you play the game of tribal council chairs, you win or you die.

Ned wouldn’t last a day in Blackfoot.

Since this is akin to John Boehner unilaterally firing every Democrat in the House, the population rose up in protest. Sharp answered by declaring a “state of emergency” and calling in outside law enforcement to quell the protest, because no constitutional crisis is complete without the obligatory declaration of emergency powers.

In the United States, unchecked power grabs get litigated by the courts. The same holds true among the Blackfeet, assuming the tribal council and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs have staunchly protected the legitimacy of the tribal court system:

After his removal, St. Goddard sued the council in tribal court. Chief Judge Dawn Running Wolf, who had served in that position since 2010 and graduated with a law degree from Arizona State University in 2003, recused herself from the case because she was appointed by the council. She began looking for a judge from outside of the reservation and submitted a name to the council. According to Running Wolf, the tribal council rejected the choice and picked its own judge. Running Wolf then reported the council’s actions to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She said the council fired her late last month.

“I don’t know of any judicial system where the defendant can pick their own judge,” Running Wolf said in an interview. “If they keep putting their hands in the court, we’re not going to have a legitimate court system.”

Yeah, you probably guessed that was coming. The appellate court ultimately dismissed the suit and affirmed that Sharp acted lawfully. The expulsion of McEvers and his four supporters has not gone through the system yet.

With the tribal court system — arguably the bedrock institution of tribal sovereignty — under question, many have joined Judge Running Wolf in seeking federal intervention.

Since the suspension of the three council members on Aug. 27, both sides have said the federal government needs to step in and mediate a solution. According to Nedra Darling, spokesperson for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency received formal requests from the opposing groups to meet with federal mediators. Darling said that on Aug. 31, acting Assistant Secretary Del Laverdure attempted to contact both groups about scheduling such a meeting. Chairman Sharp informed him that mediation was no longer needed and the council could deal with the issues itself. However, Darling said the BIA would continue to monitor the situation.

“Why would we want the federal government to come in here when we’re a sovereign nation?” Sharp asked.

And this is the current tragedy of the Native American legal condition. The federal government that spent so much time handing out blankets to wipe out the population cannot make up its mind about its proper role. Stand on the sidelines or issue federal indictments. Extend the Violence Against Women Act to Indian Country or “respect sovereignty.”

Not since the historic assassination of Archduke Franz Bullwinkle has the death of one moose triggered so much calamity.


Joe Patrice is the author of Recess Appointment, a blog about political rhetoric, and he’ll be dropping in occasionally to write about the intersection of law and politics. To answer the question that you’re probably about to ask, he got his J.D. at NYU and spent ten years working at a Biglaw firm and a white-collar defense boutique. His favorite word is sesquipedalian.


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