As of Tuesday, the fate of three Chukchansi tribal council seats remained in question after a meeting to swear in council members was canceled Monday night.
Reggie Lewis, chairman of the group that has remained in charge of the tribe's operations at the rancheria, issued a statement Monday that, "based on credible information forwarded to public safety officials and the history of past actions of a small number of agitators, the council determined out of abundance of caution that safety should rule the day. Later this week, the meeting will be rescheduled for a new date and time."
Madera County Sheriff's Office Spokesperson Erica Stuart said the department was only told that the meeting would not take place.
The group headed by Morris Reid -- four top-vote getters in the Dec. 3 tribal council election who have not been recognized by Lewis' group as new council members -- were holding their regular meeting with tribal members in Oakhurst at the same time Monday night and said they had no plans to protest the meeting.
Tribal member Nicolette Griffith said she and some Chukchansi members had planned to peacefully protest the swearing-in from Picayune Road (417) by holding signs because they heard Reid, Dora Jones and Dixie Jackson were not going to be sworn in.
Reid's group said they don't expect to be sworn in by Lewis' group.
Their seats may be filled through another election or by appointments.
March 26 was the new date for swearing-in the tribal council, rescheduled from Dec. 26 by Lewis' group until a new election could be held for Harold Hammond's seat. Hammond, the top vote-getter of the Dec. 3 election, was found to be ineligible to serve on council due to allegedly wearing his expired council badge to get into sensitive casino areas.
Members of Reid's group recently received new letters signed by Lewis and Jennifer Stanley stating they were found to be guilty of violating the tribe's non-violence ordinance Dec. 26 and Dec. 27.
Amidst the heated Dec. 26 tribal council meeting, with protests raised by tribal members that the new council should be seated as scheduled, the four newly-elected were sworn in. The Lewis group did not recognize this action.
Madera County Sheriff's Office officials were present at that meeting at request to ensure the peace was kept. Sheriff John Anderson wrote a statement after the meeting that no record of assaultive, aggressive or violent behavior had been reported to the department about the three leaders who now await word about whether or not they will be seated with Lewis' group.
Tribal hearings for the non-violence charges were held last month, presided over by Lewis' group that also issued the letters. Penalties awarded include ten years without tribal benefits and five years without attending tribal meetings, what could drop to two years if those charged pay "full restitution" in an amount to be determined later.
Lewis' group declined to comment further about Monday's canceled meeting or the future of the three seats.
All four winners of the Dec. 3 election are against the recent disenrollments of Chukchansi members, what Lewis' group has been voting in favor of.
About 125 Chukchansi people have been ousted from the tribe since late last year, including descendents of Chukchansi Chief Hawa and members from one of the tribe's original allotments lands, and with it, honored Chukchansi elder Ruby "Roan" Cordero, one of the tribe's last native language speakers, also a master basket weaver, lifelong tribal member and area resident.
Jones said Lewis' group is using the tribal office break-in Feb. 28 -- an attempt by some tribal members to seat their elected leaders after Bureau of Indian Affairs said they had no plans to get involved in the leadership standoff -- as another reason to keep them off the council.
"They are blaming us for the mess that happened to the tribal building," Jones said. "I didn't do it. Morris and the people inside the building did not do that. The only thing they are guilty of is moving furniture to block the windows from pepper spray, breaking a window to get in, and breaking out ceiling panes so they could breathe ... The pepper spray was coming in through the air vents and it was so thick, like smoke, you couldn't even see through the hallways."
About 60 Chukchansi members were not allowed on the tribal property March 10 to vote in the new election for Hammond's seat (won by Lewis) or attend the General Council meeting at the casino because they were banned for 30 days due to allegations they were at the tribal offices during its occupation. Many Chukchansi members said those outside the building who sprayed bear mace or threw burning logs, bricks or rocks inside have not received a ban.
By a show of hands, tribal members at the General Council meeting voted 447 to 64 to recognize the council led by Lewis was rightfully seated until a new election could be held for Hammond's seat.
Many in the meeting said they were also told that they needed to recognize the council to sign off on the debt restructure, and that if they didn't do this, tribal services and monthly casino stipends to members could be in jeopardy.
"I can see this going very bad for us," said Griffith, who was involved in what was meant to be a non-violent occupation of the tribal offices last month in hopes that BIA or some outside entity would eventually step in to mediate the leadership standoff. It turned violent when a large fight and stabbing occurred outside the building when some members were blocked from returning inside with food.
"We are seen as, I don't know what -- we're the bad guys, and man that kills me to say that because we are fighting for everyone. We are trying to stop these disenrollments," Griffith said. "We've had civil rights violated but it seems in Indian Country these things are legal ... We have nowhere to go. We have no help whatsoever. It is like a complete dictatorship, just like any other sovereign nation like many others overseas, calling out to the U.S. to help. We are in that position. We are calling to the United States too but we haven't gotten a reply. It seems they sympathize with the position of Reggie Lewis and leadership is leadership no matter what is taking place, and that is above crime and above the people's rights, above the people's needs."
Lewis' group has stated that they continue to follow their tribe's laws and constitution in all that has taken place.
"We are going to keep up our fight," Jones said. "We are still holding meetings and meeting with the BIA and that type of thing. I met with Congressman Jeff Denham a couple weeks back and he is basically not interested in getting involved. He said both sides are his friends ... I like Jeff, I really do, but at some point in time you have to draw the line and say, 'OK guys, you have to quit stepping over the line.' He's the congressman here. Congress could get involved if they chose to do so."