- Claiming Turtle Mountain's Constitution: The History, Legacy, and Future of a Tribal Nation's Founding Documents by Keith Richotte Jr.
DR. KEITH RICHOTTE'S well-researched and well-written book tells a story that is all too familiar to the American Indian people. Whether it be the Plains Ojibwe, the Metis, the Sioux, or the Navajo, the story follows a familiar pattern: in spite of the federal government's promise to protect American Indian nations and their members—a duty of protection recognized in Indian treaties and United States Supreme Court decisions—the federal government established laws and policies resulting in Indian removals, theft of treaty-promised lands, allotment of Indian lands, termination of Indian nations, and excessive federal control over the lives of the Indian people on reservations. The overarching theme of this book, and of federal Indian laws and policies for over two hundred years, is the federal government's practice of doing justice for white settlers while simultaneously doing injustice to its treaty partner, the American Indian nations.
Give the American Indian people credit for surviving—physically, mentally, culturally, spiritually, and as nations—the federal government's outright destructive Indian policies and laws. Challenged by obstacles erected by federal Indian policies, the Plains Ojibwe and the Metis, just like other American Indian nations of the second half of the nineteenth century, struggled to forge a political identity that the federal government would recognize as legitimate and capable of a nation-to-nation relationship. Richotte, using federal documents, newspaper clippings, letters of the day, and some between-the-lines reading, has woven a clear narrative in the style of traditional Indian storytelling of how the Indian nation now known as the Turtle Mountain Chippewa used the constitutional process to pursue and eventually establish its political identity. One might even say that the leaders of this Indian nation had foresight because they strategized development of a constitution long before the 1934 Indian Organization Act was enacted.
Central to the Turtle Mountain Chippewa's drive for a constitution was its desire to file a claim against the United States for wrongs the United States committed, including the taking of the Chippewa's ancestral lands without just compensation. The problem was that an Indian nation could not file a claim against the United States without its consent made in a duly enacted [End Page 201] law. The leaders of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa believed that the best strategy would be to solidify the nation's political identity through a constitution. The federal government would then recognize the Plains Ojibwe and the Metis as a single political unit, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Congress would then enact legislation allowing the Chippewa to file a land claim, and the president would sign it into law.
One can argue that the federal government should have recognized the Turtle Mountain Chippewa as a sovereign nation, even without a written constitution, pursuant to established legal doctrines established in the early Cherokee cases Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (30 U.S. [5 Pet.] 1 ) and Worcester v. Georgia (31 U.S. [6 Pet.] 515 ). However, federal policy and the rules of the day would not permit it. In the late 1800s, Indian people were considered uncivilized "wards of the federal government," and the federal government had "plenary power" over them. Thus, the federal government's pervasive control of Indian nations and the lives of Indian people left no room in giving effect to already established legal doctrines that would have recognized the political status of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa.
The Turtle Mountain Chippewa voted on and passed a constitution in October 1932. It was heavily influenced by the federal government and had many faults. Nonetheless, it was an instrument that provided another step on the road to a claim against the United States. Unfortunately, the adoption of the constitution did not lead to the filing of the long-anticipated claim. The Turtle Mountain Chippewa had to wait until Congress established the Indian Claims...