Both men seeking to lead the Northern Cheyenne, L. Jace Killsback and John Robinson, agree that poverty and unemployment are major issues facing the tribe.
The two candidates for president responded to questions posed by The Gazette about how they would deal with those and other issues. They also talked about their backgrounds and their qualifications for the job.
The tribe’s general election takes place Tuesday. Any tribal member 18 or older whose name is on the districts’ voter list is eligible to vote. Polling places in all districts will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Killsback and Robinson are challengers for the tribe’s top spot. In the Sept. 27 primary, Killsback, a Tribal Council member, and Robinson, the tribe’s chief judge, both received more votes than incumbent President Leroy Spang. Killsback collected 298 votes and Robinson got 275; Spang received 269 votes, which put him out of the running.
Robinson, 69, who lives in Muddy Creek, attended the University of California at Berkeley and Eastern Montana College. He graduated from the first national Indian paralegal training program at Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C., in 1978.
He served in the U.S. Army and has worked in construction, coal mining and forestry. He also has been assistant director of tribal housing, grant writer and director of the Tribal Employment Rights Office.
Robinson was appointed judge in 1979 and has served as chief judge for 15 years. He spent the remainder of the time as juvenile judge, associate judge, pro tem judge and appellate judge.
Robinson summed up his qualifications this way: “Education, courage, commitment to our Northern Cheyenne people common sense, maturity, vision, extensive successful administrative experience, a respect and belief in the strengths of our Northern Cheyenne people, our traditions, our history and our culture.”
Killsback, 33, who lives in Busby, earned a bachelor’s degree in Native American studies in 2002 from the University of California at Berkeley. He taught for a semester at Chief Dull Knife College and coached boys basketball at Lame Deer High for a season.
Killsback decided to run for political office in 2004. He found leadership “to be my true calling in life.”
“I am young, but have held political office longer than any current tribal leader of our nation,” he said.
Killsback has served on the tribal council for eight years, and has also represented the Northern Cheyenne and other tribes on national, regional and local committees and boards. He is one of 12 tribal leaders chosen to sit on the Tribal Advisory Committee of the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services.
Killsback is vice chairman and Billings area representative to the National Indian Health Board. He also is a longtime member and treasurer of the Montana and Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council.
Killsback said that when he first was elected to the Tribal Council, he created an economic development plan that promotes small business on the reservation.
“I know we have talented and motivated people who wish to create their own jobs, but need the investments,” he said.
Killsback acknowledged that there is no quick fix to a problem that has beset the reservation for 100 years. But he said he would support the newly ratified Northern Cheyenne Development Corporation Charter, a business board charged with managing the tribe’s economic development.
Killsback said the tribe needs to purchase the remainder of its fee land on the reservation. It also needs to improve water and sewer system and its telecommunications and technology infrastructure, which will, in turn, promote business development.
To Robinson, the solution to poverty and unemployment is “to assist and partner with the public sector to build businesses and encourage entrepreneurship."
“We have the resources to attract larger businesses, such as manufacturing companies, and can prepare our people for the jobs through significantly increasing the resources for education vocational training and apprenticeship programs,” he said.
The focus on career goals and objectives needs to start in junior high school, Robinson said.
Robinson said his priorities include improving the efficiency of the tribal administration; developing incentives for retention in the education system; providing assistance for higher education, vocational schools and training; and creating a career center to assist young and older people with development of education and job training geared toward professions that will be available on the reservation.
Robinson also wants to develop a disaster and emergency response plan, secure cellphone service for the entire reservation and create zoning policies that will encourage and attract small businesses, manufacturers and recreation businesses. He also wants to get a regional dialysis clinic on the reservation.
Killsback’s focus would be on program and employee improvement.
“Promote operating our tribal government as a business with improved customer service and professional development for our staff,” he said. “This includes creating a Human Resources Department that can begin to provide actual health and retirement benefits by alleviating tribal holidays and administrative leave.”
Killsback also would focus on incentives for good employees and opportunities for promotions and careers. He would move the work environment away from a culture of “it’s who you know, not what you know” to one focused on hiring based on education and qualifications.
Killsback said he has a vision of his people becoming healthier, families getting stronger and the tribe’s children becoming educated. A leader must have ethics and a connection to the people, he said.
“I will include people in the decision-making process,” Killsback said. “I will be more accessible to the community and I will call into service all our Cheyenne who are educated and who have experience or who are experts to come help move our tribe forward.”
Robinson said the tribe must have a vision, set long-term goals and have a plan to meet those goals.
“Every action we take should be with the thought ‘will this help our people and protect our land? Will this help our grandchildren and their grandchildren and protect their land?’ ” he said.