BIA says Chukchansi people can 'work it out'

Leaders voted in still not able to take seats at the rancheria -- more fired and disenrolled

Carmen GeorgeFebruary 9, 2012 

With losers of a December Chukchansi tribal council election still seated at the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, election winners have met with Bureau of Indian Affairs in hopes the agency will recognize their body as the true tribal council based off results of the Dec. 3 election.

At stake is the future membership of the tribe, many Chukchansi believe, with leadership still split.

The four elected/reelected vow to put an end to recent disenrollments of Chukchansi people at the tribe, and have been holding meetings with membership in Oakhurst.

The two council members that did not step down after being voted out -- Chairman Reggie Lewis and Treasurer Chance Alberta -- along with three council members not up for reelection this year, have been disenrolling members, and continue to hold power over the tribe's checkbook and casino profits, have been holding meetings with membership on the rancheria. A new election has been planned by Reggie's council in March, which will be for one, to as many as all four of the seats that were won Dec. 5.

"There is no plan for any action to be taken by BIA," said Troy Burdick, superintendent of BIA's Central California Agency with 55 tribes under his supervision.

"When it comes to matters such as these, it's entirely up to the tribe ... If they want to amend their constitution or any laws for that matter, or if they want some opinion or advice about doing that, they can certainly do that upon request, but that request hasn't been made of us. They have their laws, and they should be able to work it out."

But working it has proven tough for small tribes like Chukchansi, with no tribal courts or checks and balances on tribal council, who now reigns like a "dictatorship," some Chukchansi said.

After election candidate Harold Hammond won one of four seats up for grabs, an appeal was filed by a losing candidate on council that Hammond was ineligible to serve. Reelected council members Morris Reid and Dora Jones were suspended, and letters were sent to them and newly-elected Dixie Jackson that they violated a "non-violence" ordinance at a Dec. 26 meeting when they were supposed to be seated. Their penalty: 10 years without any tribal benefits, five years banned from all meetings, and restitution to be paid for the disruption of the meeting.

Sheriff Department officers were there to ensure the peace was kept. Sheriff John Anderson wrote Jan. 12 that no record of assaultive, aggressive or violent behavior was reported to the department about Reid, Jackson or Jones, or by Chukchansi members Hillary Battles (Hammond's daughter), Janice Devine or Mark Emerick also in attendance who received the same banishment letters -- some of an estimated 25 others.

"These matters are related to internal tribal affairs or confidential personnel matters, and it's the tribes policy not to comment on those issues out of respect for those involved," said spokesman Roger Salazar, representing Reggie Lewis' council, who said the group declined to comment any further.

"Basically, they want to choose their own council members," said Patrick Hammond, who was removed from tribal council in January, 2011, shortly after being elected by a landslide. "Now, whether you get elected or not, they'll drum something up to remove you and then appoint someone they want."

After he was reelected to council, the new council expelled him for something he had already had a hearing for before he was a council member and was found to be innocent of, Patrick said. According to the tribe's constitution, council members can only be removed for "neglect of duty" or "gross misconduct" for actions while serving.

Not long after he was removed, the closed enrollment audit was reopened and a new majority began drafting up documents to gear up for another purge, Patrick said.

In October, 54 people from one of the tribe's original Chukchansi allotments were disenrolled.

Many were fired or disenrolled following a Dec. 26 council meeting, when the newly-elected tribal council was scheduled to be seated.

"After seeing that the agenda didn't mention anything about seating the newly-elected council, a man asked, 'When are you going to seat them?'" said Hillary Battles, daughter of Harold Hammond elected Dec. 3. "Some words went back and forth between him and Reggie, and Reggie finally said, 'You've got to be quiet or I'm going to disenroll you.'"

When membership discovered Hammond was not being allowed in, council began to explain how Hammond was banned from the casino, and that the meeting building was recently determined to be part of the casino, therefore disqualifying him from serving on tribal council. Council asked Mark Emerick, executive director of the Tribal Gaming Commission, seated in the audience, to help answer the question.

He had a different opinion.

Emerick said some leaders -- defeated candidates and their family members -- violated the Tribal Government Ethics Ordinance by failing to recuse themselves from discussions regarding whether the building was on casino grounds because all had something to gain from the discussions.

Emerick was suspended from his job the next morning.

"It was pure retaliation," Emerick said. "It was a pure violation of the Indian Civil Rights Act as well as our tribal constitution. They asked me to speak, I spoke, they didn't like what I said, and then they suspended me the next day. On Jan. 6, they fired me. So it's very simple to me. It violated my freedom of speech -- especially after they asked me to speak."

The Bill of Rights in Chukchansi's Constitution reads that "All members of the Tribe shall enjoy without hindrance, freedom of worship, conscience, speech, press, assembly, and association."

Mark's wife Katherine, along with Battles, were both suspended Dec. 27, and later fired from their jobs at the tribal offices "at will," along with many other Chukchansi people at the tribal offices or casino.

"I'm not a tribal member, so I wasn't at the Dec. 26 meeting," Katherine said. "My assumption is I was fired as retaliation for Mark."

"A lot of members are really afraid to say much because the membership was basically chastised at a recent meeting that they are not supposed to say anything about this because it's tribal business, and that is ridiculous," said Charles Etner, American Indian Studies program coordinator at Fresno State, also brother-in-law to Reid. "There are things that a tribe may do because it is a sovereign nation, and that certainly has to do with making the rules for how a tribe operates, but no tribe and no nation has the right to take away a human beings' human rights ... Freedom of speech is not something any government should have power over."

"The bureau needs to acknowledge the results of the election," said Patrick Hammond. "Them not getting involved is getting involved."

"Tribes have an authority to determine their own path, that's what self-determination is all about -- it's all about choice," said BIA's Burdick. "It's not for us to say you have to go down this road. So if this is the path they are choosing to go down, I'm sure they will find a way to work it out."

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