BIA Pulls A Fast One With New Secretarial Election Rule

By Bree Black Horse

The Bureau of Indian Affairs recently announced its final rule regarding Secretarial elections for federally recognized tribes.  The final rule purports to clarify how tribes may remove IRA constitutional provisions requiring Secretarial elections for constitutional amendments.


The BIA claims that its new rule furthers tribal self-governance and self-determination. That may be true, at least absent tribal chicanery.  The BIA also claims that this rule protects urban Indian voting rights.  But in reality, the rule does no such thing. 

The fact of the matter is this: the BIA wants out of the Secretarial election business.  That is because Secretarial elections are costly for the agency to administer and a headache for BIA superintendents and line staff. 

Of more concern, in this day and age of increasing tribal factionalism, such federal elections are used as a mode of intra-tribal warfare, with the BIA placed directly in the firing line between Indian Hatfields and McCoys.  No matter which faction wins the Secretarial election, the BIA gets maimed, meaning sued

So rather than address that reality, the BIA brands the rule as beneficial to urban Indians.  

Because Secretarial elections are done by mail—rather than many tribally-run elections that require on-reservation voting—the BIA knows it needs off-reservation tribal members to support any Secretarial ballot measure that will eliminate a tribal constitutional Secretarial-election requirement and thus get the agency out of the Secretarial election business. 

The BIA is pandering.

The bottom line is that after urban tribal members vote in such a Secretarial election, it may be the last time they get to vote on a matter of their tribe’s governance, at least without going home to vote.  

Indeed, tribal leaders, especially bad ones, may no longer need to account for the vote of their urban members.  They can seek to amend a tribal constitution without a comprehensive vote of the tribal membership.  Let the games begin.

In all, the BIA’s rule disenfranchises urban tribal member voters; it simply does not and will not “prevent tribal members living in urban areas from being inadvertently disenfranchised in Secretarial elections,” as the BIA claims. 

Even worse, the rule could lead to the mass disenrollment of tribal members via Secretarial election, as has been attempted once, and is currently being attempted again, at Nooksack

Getting the BIA out of tribal affairs is not necessarily a bad thing.  But much more care is required from the Trustee or there could be dramatic unintended consequences for tribal members.  

Bree Black Horse is an associate in the Seattle office of Galanda Broadman, PLLC,  She is an enrolled member of the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma.