Alli Moran: Improving Quality of Life

For Rebuilder Alli Moran, cultivating a Native nation rebuilding movement looks like improving quality of life for her fellow Tribal citizens.

Alli’s lifelong interest in Tribal governance has kept her grounded as she’s navigated tough decisions, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the midst of intense pressure, she’s prioritized staying true to herself and her Lakota values. Alli is focused on designing a future that centers the next seven generations and, at the same time, elevates her nation’s sovereignty.

A passion for Tribal governance

Alli Moran’s passion for Tribal governance and traditional knowledge started at a young age. Growing up on both the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations, she saw firsthand the potential for Native nations to work together and became interested in learning more about Lakota culture. She soon developed a curiosity about other Native nations, too, writing her very first research paper at the age of ten on the Ojibwe people.

As a middle schooler, Alli attended her first Tribal Council session as part of a government class. She had so much fun that she begged her teacher for the chance to return. “I was super excited. I’m pretty sure I was the only one who was pumped up to go over there,” Alli laughs. “I took a lot of notes. I’m also pretty sure I was the only one who took extensive notes.” Eventually, her teachers began allowing her to attend Council meetings during homeroom, on the condition that she reported back on what she learned. Alli’s experience observing the meetings helped her realize the importance of seventh generation thinking — the concept of making decisions with future generations in mind.

As Alli puts it, her whole extended family knew that she was “kind of a nerd” during this period of her life. Her mom and grandparents wholeheartedly supported her growing interest in Tribal politics. They’d ask her questions about current events happening locally and across Indian Country as a way to encourage her to keep learning and proudly share her knowledge.

A difficult call

It’s no surprise that in 2019, Alli took a job as the Senior Policy Analyst for the South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations. She initially felt excited about the position because it aligned with her lifelong passion. But, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Alli realized that the role didn’t actually fit with her values and role as a Lakota woman.

As COVID-19 spread through Native nations in 2020, some Tribal governments, including the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, installed health and safety checkpoints along state and federal highways. The checkpoints served as a form of advanced contact tracing to slow the spread of COVID-19. While Native nations were entirely within their rights as sovereign nations to establish the checkpoints, some local leaders, such as South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, disagreed. Governor Noem’s viewpoint and subsequent actions soon made Alli’s work difficult. She explains, “The governor, in my opinion, does not respect Tribal sovereignty. It was baffling to me because my agency was supposed to be the point of contact to help our governor see that Native nations were simply exercising their sovereignty and protecting their people. But, that wasn’t at all the case.”

As the pandemic wore on, and relationships between Kristi Noem’s office and Native nations grew increasingly strained, Alli felt more and more uncomfortable in her role. The tipping point happened one day when Alli looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize herself. “I said to myself, if I stay in this position, I’m going to lose my spirit,” Alli notes. “I really had to look inward at all I’d learned and trust that I was making the best possible decision–not only for me but for my people.” Alli respectfully resigned from her position and transitioned to a new role with her nation’s Attorney General.

“With approval of the Secretary”

Since leaving her position with the South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations, Alli’s taken some much needed time to rest and heal. She’s also leaned on her fellow Native Nation Rebuilders in Cohort 11 for support and started working on her action plan. (Rebuilders must complete a governance-focused project that helps strengthen their community.) Alli’s action plan embraces her focus on seventh generation thinking. She’s engaging her community around removing a short phrase that appears frequently in her Tribal constitution because she knows the change will help future generations. The phrase references the need to seek permission from the Secretary of the Department of the Interior before making certain amendments or changes.

At first glance, the phrase may seem insignificant. But, because it requires permission from the Secretary in order to finalize a variety of governmental decisions, it severely impedes Native nations’ ability to act on community needs. On top of that, the phrase is paternalistic and antiquated. It originated almost 90 years ago during the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) era. Starting in 1934, the federal government supplied Native nations with template governing documents in an attempt to move away from failed assimilation and allotment programs. The IRA-era template constitution document contained the “with approval of the Secretary” phrase. For a variety of complicated reasons, many Native nations continue to use IRA-type constitutions and operate under this permission system.

Alli believes that changing the approval phrase will help her people better realize their inherent power. “By striking this verbiage from our constitution,” she notes, “it’ll show that we do have the power to make the changes we see fit for our nation.” She plans to visit all 17 of Cheyenne River’s communities to get the word out to her community and ensure that all voices are heard during the revision process. Alli then hopes to bring the results of her community engagement to her Tribal Council to officially start the conversation around changing her constitution’s language.

Rebuilding for the future

While working on specific issues, such as revising constitutional language, Alli’s also staying focused on the big picture. She’s asking herself and her fellow Tribal citizens, “Where do we want to go from here?” Alli believes that the COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity for Native nations to reassess, restructure, and rebuild their governance. She sees the importance of measuring community needs and making thoughtful future plans so nations can strategically leverage COVID-19-related federal funding.

Right now, Alli sees improving quality of life as an urgent community goal. To her, organizing around meeting this goal lies at the core of the Native nation rebuilding movement. She explains, “Looking at all of the data, we really have to improve quality of life. Because that’s what our Tribal members are discussing.” Strengthening policies and procedures is one way Alli hopes to contribute to the overall movement. When Native nations have stronger governing systems, they’re more likely to experience better outcomes for their people.

All in all, Alli feels inspired by her fellow citizens’ focus on the future. She explains, “I was in a meeting. And, our Tribal secretary said, ‘I’m taking extensive notes right now. And I’m making sure I file them because they’re going to be here for future generations. When they look back, they’ll know how we made it through this pandemic.’ That deeply resonated with me. Because it helped me see how much of a ripple effect what we do today has on our future.”