PABLO, Mont. – Tribal voters on the Flathead Reservation resoundingly defeated a highly controversial measure on Jan. 18 that would have scrapped blood quantums and opened Salish and Kootenai enrollment to all descendants.
Final tallies show the proposed constitutional amendment was defeated by more than a 4-to-1 margin, with 2,032 voting against the measure and only 450 voting in support. Voter turnout was pegged at about 78 percent, which exceeded most other elections.
“We’re disappointed, extremely disappointed,” said Split Family Support Group spokeswoman Regina Parot, a leader in getting the issue on the secretarial election ballot. “We were looking forward to bringing our families together. We were really overwhelmed about how many votes were against.”
Following the refusal of a constitutional review committee to recommend opening the rolls to descendants, Parot’s group conducted an initial petition drive in 2000 that was ultimately rejected in a BIA review. The group started circulating another petition for the broader, lineal descendancy amendment in 2001, and enough signatures were gathered by the middle of last year to qualify the election.
Tribal traditionalists, saying that opening membership to those with less than one-quarter Salish and Kootenai blood would trigger cultural death, rallied against the proposal. The Tribal Council, split 7-3 over the measure, in the end also waged war on the amendment. Members were warned that if the proposal passed, per capita payments and other types of funding would be decreased or eliminated, housing and other services would be strained to the breaking point, and the Flathead Reservation’s natural resources would be overrun.
“Our disgust is with the council because of the tactics they used the last two weeks to scare the heck out of voters,” Parot says. “The Tribal Council hit all the right panic buttons.”
But Pat Pierre, a tribal cultural leader and full-blood Pend d’Oreille, says he thinks voters realized what was at stake and, for a variety of reasons, didn’t want to gamble with the future.
“There was a lot of them that came to realize what (the split family group) was doing was wrong,” he says. “I never ever thought it would pass, personally, because there was a power here they were coming up against – spiritual, traditionalism.”
A demographic study conducted under contract by researcher Deward Walker Jr. indicated that the tribal membership, now numbering about 7,000, would quickly double if the amendment passed. If the tribe’s current growth rate was sustained, Walker predicted the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes could have more than 24,000 members by 2025.
On the other hand, the study also indicated that enrollment under the current one-quarter blood quantum restrictions has already peaked, and membership will decline precipitously in coming years.
In the midst of debate last year over lineal descendancy, the Tribal Council passed a resolution to put another measure on the ballot. The BIA, however, ruled that the split-family issue had to be voted on first.
The council proposal, which Pierre says will be broached again now that the secretarial election is over, called for keeping the one-quarter standard, but allowing other Indian blood to be included as the total blood quantum. Walker surmised that the council’s proposal, forwarded by Pierre and other traditionalists, would buy the tribes some time, but enrollment numbers would still fall over time as bloodlines continue to thin.
Pierre says he thinks one key to tribal survival is to discourage Indian people from marrying non-Indians.
“We’re going to start working with our young people,” he explained. “They have now seen what can happen.”
Pierre said an effort would also soon get underway to remove the three council members who supported the descendancy amendment.
“Now we need to start cleaning house and getting some color back in our government,” he said.
Both Pierre and Parot agree that it will take some time to repair the emotional damage that occurred as the descendancy issue was debated.
“This thing did stir up a lot of anger,” Pierre said. “But once this other (blood-quantum proposal) gets settled, I think things will mellow out.”
“I don’t see things being healed very fast,” said Parot, who has one son who is a Salish and Kootenai member and one who is not. “There has to be some attitude changes first. Our group is not through. We may pursue some other things.”
Either way, Pierre maintained that the power of the traditionalists and what they stand for would overcome any future obstacles.
“We did the right thing,” he says. “They said it needed to come to a vote. So we rallied and put it down. We put it down, and we put it down properly. They did one good thing, though. They got the Indian people to work together for once.”