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Patricia Stiffarm hopes to be elected to the Board of Directors for the NAIA

Patricia Stiffarm shares her experience with the North American Indian Alliance based in Butte.

On Wednesday, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., members of Butte’s North American Indian Alliance will have the chance to vote to fill four open seats on its board of directors. And a small group of active, vocal members of the alliance are hoping that election will give them a chance to begin correcting the concerns they have been raising over the past two years or so about how the board conducts its business.

Among those with concerns is Fred LaMere.

An active member of a committee currently trying to draft new bylaws for the NAIA, LaMere says his “biggest beef” with the board is his belief that the members haven’t been properly following open meeting laws that govern when meeting agendas and minutes are posted, how meetings are conducted, and how public input is considered.

“That’s the biggest thing,” he said on a recent afternoon. “The community is supposed to have a little bit of oversight.”  

The oversight, LaMere says, is key to the proper functioning of the NAIA, which provides a range of healthcare and social services from its offices on East Galena Street.

And LaMere isn’t the only longtime alliance member with concerns.

There’s also Patty Stiffarm and Tony Dubray, who both resigned from the board due to their belief that the majority was dampening community involvement through mismanagement.

There’s Bernadette Leuis, a longtime member of the NAIA who says the current board of directors are “running amuck.”

There’s Alta Boggs, who says “the community always gets shut down” by the board when members seek answers for their concerns.

The result, these critics say, is declining programming at the NAIA as well as declining community involvement.

But Dan Gardipee, who has served as the board’s chair since 2017, says board members are “doing the best we can.” Gardipee notes that he and his fellow board members are volunteers who have full-time jobs, are in school, and have a range of other obligations. And he points to the difficult work they have to do, for no pay, in their off hours, dealing with federal contracts, navigating Medicare and Medicaid, pursuing grants, organizing events, and seeing through a recent remodel at the NAIA offices, among other duties.  

And while he notes that the board has “heard some concerns,” Gardipee also says he invites those with concerns to “be part of the solution” and seek a seat on the board “to rectify what you see is wrong.”

Some of the board’s critics are doing exactly that.

Eight nominees will be competing for four open seats on the NAIA’s board of directors during Wednesday’s election, including Dubray, Leuis, and Stiffarm. Gardipee is running, too. The other four nominees are Brenda Jarvis, Yvonne Schelin, Deb Johnston, and Esther Iron-Shell.

Those who are critical of the board, though, allege that recent past elections were conducted unfairly, with ineligible people casting votes.

According to the NAIA bylaws, “Voting membership in the Alliance shall be given to any person of North American Indian descent or heritage, who is a resident of Butte, Silver Bow Montana and who makes application to the Alliance for membership. Residents of Jefferson County, Beaverhead County and Madison County who meet the other qualifications of voting members will be given membership in the Alliance upon application.”

Dubray and others, however, claim that the board has allowed voters from Cascade County to participate in elections, throwing off the results.

“I’d have to have proof,” LaMere says, “but I think some of the people that voted aren’t from here.”

That’s an allegation those currently serving on the board of directors deny.

According to Vice Chairperson Danielle Tinsley, elections are conducted according to the alliance’s bylaws, with a list of eligible voters assembled ahead of time and “given to the person monitoring the elections” to ensure only those who are eligible vote.

While the rift between the board and its critics has caused some dissension amongst the NAIA’s members, both sides hope Wednesday’s election represents a step toward bringing both sides back together.

“We’re trying to do what’s right,” Dubray says. “We’re trying to get it back to normal.”

And Gardipee says he has been and remains committed to “reaching out to the community.”

Efforts to contact the Indian Health Service, which has oversight of the NAIA, were stymied by the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government.

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