Chukchansi family files federal suit

Ramirezes claim a historic ruling granted them sole authority to form Picayune tribe

Carmen GeorgeJuly 11, 2012 

After months of conflict between two rivaling factions, both claiming to be the rightful tribal council of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, a third faction has entered into the mix.

The Ramirez family is suing the United States government, claiming they were the only individuals who should have been given authority decades ago to formally organize the Chukchansi tribe and establish tribal leadership.

The Ramirez lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court in San Jose, is being tagged onto the historic 1983 Tillie Hardwick ruling. That lawsuit settlement allowed for the reestablishment of the Chukchansi tribe and 16 others in California, decades after 40 tribes were disbanded by the California Rancheria Act of 1958.

To reestablish the Chukchansi tribe, BIA ultimately ratified a tribal constitution in error submitted by members of the Wyatt family, who also enrolled some 600 tribal members, according to the suit.

The suit alleges that because Maryan Ramirez, now deceased, was the only Chukchansi plaintiff in the Tillie Hardwick suit, and because the Ramirezes never sold their deeded rancheria land like the Wyatts did, they were the only individuals who could have legally authorized the rolls and a constitution.

The lawsuit was filed by Chukchansi members Mona Bragdon and Anthony Ramirez, the children of Maryan Ramirez, who are being represented by attorneys Dennis Cota and Sean DeBurgh of Cota Cole, LLP Attorneys, based out of Madera and Roseville. A press conference was held Monday on their 28-acre Indian allotment which butts up against land now owned by the tribe.

When Bragdon was asked Monday if she should be the rightful leader of the Chukchansi tribe, she said, "Yes, our mother started this and it got taken away ...

"It's more than that -- it's for our children," she said as tears filled her eyes.

The Ramirez suit states that after the 1983 Hardwick ruling, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began working with Maryan Ramirez to form the Chukchansi tribe. By 1984, a provisional Ramirez tribal council had been formed. That group sent a tribal constitution to BIA for approval later that year which was rejected for technical reasons, the suit states.

Maryan Ramirez died in June of the next year, and shortly after BIA officials approached Bragdon with an offer to continue on with the necessary steps to form the tribe.

"While I intended to pick up where my mother had left off with regard to tribal formation, because of the recent passing of my mother and grief associated with it, I temporarily declined this invitation," stated Bragdon in the lawsuit. "After I declined the $8,000 offer (to form the tribe) from the BIA, descendents of Gordon Wyatt -- led by Jane Lawhon (now Jane Wyatt) -- began their efforts to impel the BIA to work with them instead of myself and my siblings."

In 1986, Bragdon said BIA officials advised her during a meeting "that I must work with descendants of Gordon Wyatt in formally establishing the tribe."

In 1992, some members of the Ramirez family were disenrolled for ten years, including Bragdon, because they "removed (tribal) office supplies and were going to restart the tribe on our land," she said.

"The council doesn't want to go back, they want to go forward, but I keep telling them, 'How do you go forward building the tribe if your foundation isn't right?'" Bragdon said.

"We remain hopeful that this can be resolved with tribal leadership by a reasoned effort by all parties," said Ramirez attorney Cota.

He said while his clients are not specifically asking for seats on tribal council in the lawsuit, "they aren't ruling it out as one of several potential resolutions."

A press release from the tribal council at the rancheria states that "after a preliminary review of the suit, our attorneys have advised that the action has zero merit, but as with any litigation that may impact the tribe, the tribal council will address this suit aggressively to ensure no vital rights are impacted."

Based on the interpretation of the Tillie Hardwick ruling by David Rapport, an attorney in Ukiah, who handled the Tillie Hardwick case when he was an attorney with California Indian Legal Services, the Ramirez family may have a weak lawsuit.

Under the judgment in the Tillie Hardwick case, any Indian who was deeded a parcel of terminated rancheria land from the federal government -- even if they later sold it like the Wyatt family -- or any Indian who bought deeded rancheria land from another Indian before December, 1983, would be a member of the class represented in that case, he said. Since then, BIA has taken the position that only members of that class in Hardwick can reorganize the tribes whose federal recognition was restored by that lawsuit, he said.

Based on that interpretation, the Wyatt and the Ramirez families had equal power to reform the tribe because both were deeded terminated rancheria land.

Rancheria land was only distributed to "heads of households" still living on a rancheria at the time BIA officials took Indian censuses after the Rancheria Act of 1958, which terminated rancherias, said Tony Cohen, partner for Clement, Fitzpatrick and Kenworthy in Santa Rosa, who's specialized in federal Indian law for more than 30 years. Indians who were absent or moved away from the rancheria to find work, or those who had an Indian allotment or homestead, were often not given the opportunity to receive terminated rancheria land, he said.

When rancherias were reestablished in the 80s under the Tillie Hardwick settlement, the federal government only recognized Indians who had been given rancheria land and their descendants as eligible to re-establish tribal governments, he said.

"This left the fate of the future unterminated tribes' membership, like that of Chukchansi, up to relatively few individuals, who could change tribal laws to enroll other Indian people if they chose to," Cohen said.

And for those not enrolled, it is virtually impossible for a group of Indian people who are not members of a federally recognized tribe to achieve that status because they have to meet nearly impossible government requirements to do so, Cohen added.

"(After Tillie Hardwick), some opted to add back everyone that was in the tribe originally, but very few did," said Laura Wass, Central California director for the American Indian Movement and a leading advocate for disenrolled Indians.

"They are calling themselves an Indian tribe and what they are now in fact are Indian families," Wass said. "What they have done is cow down to the federal government's policy of Indian termination, and both families are supporting that."

Last year, some members of the Ramirez family said they are not necessarily for or against tribal disenrollments, but that they believe their right to form the tribe, granted by the federal government, was "stolen from them."

Wass said she believes the lawsuit is being filed now because the tribe's at its "weakest and its most vulnerable."

"We all knew that it was going to be between the Wyatts and the Ramirezes if these disenrollments were allowed to continue, and here you have it," Wass said. "We have this separation just because people moved off the land because the feds put everyone in starvation mode. Whose faulting them for moving?... The ideal situation would be going back to growing their tribe back to a full nation and going forward positive and build and protect and preserve."

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