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Published October 01 2012

Forum editorial: Keep light shining on Spirit Lake

The brighter the light on the Spirit Lake Tribal Council, the clearer and more startling the dysfunction of tribal government becomes. In the latest installment of attempts to protect the northeastern North Dakota reservation’s children, continued denial by council members and a court problem made headlines (Forum Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 reports by Patrick Springer). There seems to be no end to the refusal of tribal leaders to accept even a small measure of culpability for the conditions in which children find themselves.

In a letter to tribal members, the council charged the tribe’s effort to address threats to children was hampered by “baseless and offensive accounts of tribal corruption” by two federal officials who reported gaps in programs to protect abused and neglected children. So once again, the council’s reaction to legitimate exposure of an endemic problem was to blame the messengers. If that’s not the refuge of scoundrels, nothing is.

What is “offensive” at Spirit Lake is the tribe’s cynical strategy to shift responsibility for the condition of the tribe’s children to anyone but tribal leadership. That’s the real corruption in this sorry saga.

Officials who reported abuse and neglect – and the tribe’s look-the-other-way negligence – were in most cases mandated reporters who were obligated by law to speak up. Additionally, others who live in the community put themselves at risk of losing their jobs or worse by blowing the whistle about what was going on regarding child welfare.

Court corrupted?

The facts regarding children should be enough to confirm governmental debasement, but there is more. The tribe is engaged in what appears to be an attempt to deny tribal members rights in tribal court. It’s not clear if the unfolding court scandal is related to the child neglect and abuse situation.

The council received notice that a contract fee with the Northern Plains Intertribal Court of Appeals had not been paid. Despite letters hand carried to each council member, the renewal fee has not been paid, which means Spirit Lake members who want to appeal a decision by the local tribal court have no recourse.

Was failure to make a small payment an oversight or was it a studied decision to extend the tribe’s apparent corruption to its court? Given that it’s been more than a year since tribal members were denied the appeals option, the tribe’s refusal to pay the fee seems like more than an oversight. And by the way, the appeals process/right is part of the tribe’s own legal code.

Children at risk, courts corrupted. What’s next?

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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