More than a year after two factions claimed to be the rightful tribal council of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, a third faction has come forward interrupting a tribal business meeting Feb. 21 to claim they are the tribes new leaders.
Members of the new faction began occupying the tribal offices Saturday night, where they remained as of press time Tuesday night, guarded by a new security force, reportedly made up of many individuals related to the faction that took over the building.
During last weeks meeting, a referendum, signed by about a dozen tribal members, was presented, calling for a new tribal council consisting of seven members of the Wyatt and Ramirez families including their relative, current tribal council chairwoman Nancy Ayala.
The Chukchansi Constitution requires that 30% of the tribes qualified voters sign any petition brought before tribal council.
The Wyatt/Ramirez faction claim their petition had enough signatures because they believe the tribe only has 46 qualified voters even though about 750 Chukchansi people voted in the tribes last tribal council election in December.
After the petition was brought forward, a motion was made to vote on it, seconded by chairwoman Ayala, and the majority of about 40 people at the meeting affirmed the new council that was listed in the petition.
The list of the new Wyatt/Ramirez tribal council was read aloud, and tribal council members Reggie Lewis, Chance Alberta, Carl Buzz Bushman and Charlie Sargosa were ordered off the council.
Richard Verri, tribal attorney representing the council headed by Reggie Lewis, said his clients suspended Ayala from the council following her actions Feb. 21. They secured the tribes financial records; operations are continuing as normal at Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino; and Lewis group still has control of security guards hired by Zaks Security, Verri said.
Ayalas group has hired their own security team to surround the tribal building they continued to occupy across the street from casino.
More than 100 law enforcement officers from throughout the region surrounded the tribal offices Tuesday evening as a precautionary measure to any eruptions between the two sides.
Because of the one-year anniversary of last years occupation of the tribal offices by another group, and because of the recent changes in tribal leadership, Sheriff John Anderson decided to take a proactive measure to ensure the peace was kept, said Erica Stuart, spokesperson for the Madera County Sheriffs Office.
Last year, tribal members promised the sheriff no one would get unruly that did not happen, Stuart said. We had to respond to an extremely volatile situation when tensions grew so badly that we had to react to mayhem ... the sheriffs job in his limited powers is to, above all, maintain law and order and keep the peace, and he decided there would not be a repeat performance (of what happened last year).
Last weekends takeover by the Ramirez/Wyatt faction was likely spurred by a recent federal court ruling that went badly for the faction, said Verri, the tribes lawyer who fought the Ramirez family in court last year and won.
The Ramirez family sued the government last year, claiming their family should have been given sole power to organize the tribe in the late 80s after the historic Tillie Hardwick ruling what gave disbanded tribes around the state the power to reorganize.
In December, the federal court ruled that the Ramirez family has no special claims to tribal leadership apart from other enrolled members of the tribe, and that the Chukchansi Constitution should be upheld.
During a Feb. 25 tribal council meeting held by the new faction, led by Ayala, a discussion ensued about creating a hierarchy system amongst the tribes membership lumping tribal citizens into different groups.
Nancy keeps saying shes not going to disenroll people, but what was divulged Monday night is she is going to make a tier system, said Dora Jones, elected as tribal vice-chair in 2011, but never seated. In other words, second class citizens."
They will keep you enrolled but they will make you a second class citizen so they get the per capita (from casino profits) and you get to be there but, you are not equal to them, said a Chukchansi tribal member who attended the Monday meeting led by Ayala. This is about equality. This is basic civil rights being violated here. We are not slaves to people ... They want to be the superior group and everyone else is secondary citizens. Thats horrible.
A lot of it is very overwhelming, how people can be so ruthless and so unmindful of their people as a whole, and be so self centered. Its just unbelievable.
The Wyatt and Ramirez claims of holding an elevated status in the tribe has a long history.
During the assimilation period of the 1950s, Chukchansi people living on the rancheria (a plot of land set aside by the government for all landless American Indians to live upon) were given an opportunity to buy the land.
Many Chukchansi families at that time already had government-awarded Indian allotments; had purchased property of their own; or had moved away to find work elsewhere. The Wyatt and Ramirez families still lived on the rancheria at the time it was being sold, and they purchased the land.
When the government allowed American Indian people to reorganize as tribes in the late 80s, Bureau of Indian Affairs went to Indian people who purchased rancheria lands to give them the opportunity to recreate their tribes. In Chukchansis case, this was the Wyatt and Ramirez families, who are both related.
A race to write the first acceptable Chukchansi constitution was won by the Wyatt family, who then opened enrollment to people from their tribe in 1989 and submitted the tribes first base roll about 600 Chukchansi people to the BIA.
Jane Wyatt served as the first tribal chairperson until a recall election was held in 1992, about a month and half after she was charged with allegedly writing checks to family members with monies from a closed tribal checking account.
About a month after the recall election that removed her from office, she and several individuals from her family were seen by tribal members allegedly removing numerous items from the tribal offices and three tribal vehicles.
Tribal chairman Gilbert Cordero and the seated tribal council at that time disenrolled many individuals they found to be involved for a period of 25 years to life, with charges including theft, misuse of tribal monies, and forming a shadow government.
Those charged include current chairwoman Nancy Ayala and four other members who make up the new Wyatt/Ramirez tribal council announced by Ayala Feb. 21.
The council headed by Ayala apparently changed its members between Feb. 21 and Monday evenings tribal council meeting.
During Mondays meeting, three Ramirez/Wyatt family members previously listed as part of the new council were replaced on the roll by Karen Wynn and Tracey Brechbuehl who were appointed to tribal council last spring but had been recently suspended and Charlie Sargosa, who had been ordered off tribal council the week before by the group.
The Monday agenda also read that Lewis, Chance Alberta and Carl "Buzz" Bushman were "excused for suspension."
Our tribal government and constitution has been tried and tested over the last few years, wrote Ayala in a prepared statement released Feb. 22. But following the constitutional process has made us stronger. With a new council in place and the strong support of our people, we can now focus on improving the quality of life for our tribal members and our surrounding community neighbors.
What theyve done is illegal, and any actions by them, calling themselves the provisional council, or the new council, is null and void, said lawyer Verri representing the council led by Lewis. It has no legal standing.
Lewis said that some tribal employees have also been unfairly and involuntarily released from their jobs, and that an interim fund has been set up for them and they intend to restore the jobs.
As weve done in the past, we will work through the legal system to reach a fair and just solution while taking all necessary steps to ensure the protection of tribal assets and peace and safety of our community, wrote Lewis in a prepared statement Tuesday evening.
This week last year, four members who won a tribal council election in December, 2011 occupied the tribal offices with other tribal members after they were not allowed to be seated by the council led by Lewis. The four elected leaders Morris Reid, Dora Jones, Dixie Jackson and Harold Hammond were all against recent tribal disenrollments, what the other council members had been voting in favor of.
It feels like déjà vu because this is straight out of the Lewis groups playbook from last year, said James Qaqundah, attorney for the council led by Reid.
Calls for help
Lewis and members of his council have taken their grievances to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in hopes they will get involved in the new leadership standoff between his council and Ayalas group.
Morris Reids council still has an appeal out to BIA, submitted last year, requesting the agency get involved in issues surrounding the standoff between their council and the one led by Lewis.
Requests for help were not answered last year BIA maintaining they were internal tribal matters that they dont get involved in.
A Chukchansi tribal member in the business meeting Feb. 21 said Ayala made it very clear to membership that there was nowhere to go for help and that any issues must be resolved from within the tribe.
You can look at this also like terrorism; that a small group of terrorists came in and took over our country, said the Chukchansi tribal member. America goes to the aid of Europe all the time, but they say were a sovereign nation ... We may not be Iraq or Iran, but were little Picayune and we need help. Were asking, and no one is helping. And if you look at it on another side, Im a tax payer. My tax money and your tax money is funding us up there. So if you look at it from that perspective, you have a whole other argument.
I think tribal corruption is alive and well and that not much has changed since Wounded Knee 40 years ago, said Ken Hansen of Fresno States Political Science Department and former co-coordinator of the American Indian Studies program. The reasons are structural: U.S. government policy sets up tribal governments to fail by starving them of resources and assistance. There is too much cronyism, a lack of transparency, and an absolutist view of tribal sovereignty.
General Council meeting Saturday
A General Council meeting, led by the tribes members instead of tribal council, was planned for Saturday, March 2, but was cancelled and will be rescheduled. Updates are being posted on Facebook/Twitter @PicayunePeople.
Tribal leaders against the recent takeover of the tribe by Ayalas group hope that the meeting will enable the tribe to vote against recent actions by leaders, or bring up new issues to vote on.
Jones said an estimated 290 people would be needed to sign a petition, and 51% of the tribe about 400 people, would be needed to pass new tribal legislation at the meeting.