Confusion continues at Chukchansi

Meeting planned for Saturday; BIA asked to get involved in dispute

Carmen GeorgeMarch 6, 2013 

Two groups of leaders, each claiming to be the rightful tribal council of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, remain at a standoff this week.

Both sides, along with Sheriff John Anderson, met with the Bureau of Indian Affairs Friday. Troy Burdick, superintendent of BIA's Central California Agency, said the only statement he was able to make about the meeting as of Tuesday was that, "I have met with both sides in this matter and have offered mediation services to assist them in resolving the current situation."

The Chukchansi leadership rift appears to only be widening, however, what began in a tribal business meeting Feb. 21, when a petition, signed by 14 tribal members, was brought forward, calling for a completely new tribal council made up of Wyatt and Ramirez family members, including tribal chairwoman Nancy Ayala.

The 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 tribe's last tribal council election in December.

Since the Feb. 21 announcement, the new group's council has changed its makeup several times, adding in several previously suspended tribal council members to their mix and eliminating some of the Wyatt and Ramirez members named in the petition.

On Feb. 26, about 100 law enforcement officers surrounded the tribal offices as Ayala's group continued to occupy the tribal offices after hearing reports of possible violence that could have erupted between the two sides that evening. As of Friday, deputies moved from tactical alert to patrol, said Erica Stuart, spokesperson for the Madera County Sheriff's Office.

The council headed by Reggie Lewis said a quarterly General Council meeting will be held from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 9, in the junior exhibit complex of the Fresno Fairgrounds, located at 1211 South Chance Ave., Fresno. General Council meetings are run by the tribe's membership instead of tribal council, and new laws can be passed with 51% of the tribe's membership present.

A letter to tribal membership from Nancy Ayala's council stated that a General Council meeting was already previously scheduled for Saturday at the tribe's Butler Building on the rancheria.

Lewis announced that a new temporary tribal office was also opened in Clovis for all tribal members, located at 2491 Alluvial Avenue, Suites 470 and 480.

The councils led by Lewis and Ayala have each sent out letters to the tribe's membership recently, discussing the leadership standoff.

"Do not allow yourself to be fooled," said the statement from the Lewis council. "Nancy Ayala, backed by the Wyatt and Ramirez families, attorney Gary Montana, and other supporters, has recently launched an all-out assault on our tribe that offends, threatens and violates our most fundamental tribal values, our true identity, our laws, and has come dangerously close to closing down our casino.

"We are committed to restoring law and order in the most expeditious and non-violent manner possible for the more than 900 enrolled members, and not just the 46 enrolled members as claimed by Nancy Ayala and the Ramirez/Wyatt faction."

The statement put out by Ayala's council to membership contends differently.

"There was no hostile takeover," reads the letter from Ayala's council. "There has been no change in the total current enrollment of 902 tribal members. There has been no violation of any federal court order. Most importantly, this tribal council continues to lead as authorized by our constitution ...

"Chance Alberta, Carl Bushman and Reggie Lewis are currently suspended pending investigation and hearing for alleged embezzlement. The tribal council has started a forensic audit of all holdings of Chukchansi, Inc., to determine the exact extent of any misconduct."

Morris Reid, elected as tribal chairman Dec. 3, 2011, but was not allowed to be seated — along with the other winners of that election — by those who remained in power, is urging tribal members not to attend the General Council meeting Saturday.

Reid said his council sent a letter to the Lewis council, asking for certain terms to be met before Reid and his supporters would attend Saturday's meeting, and those terms have not been met. The Reid group’s requests include reinstating all Chukchansi people who were tribal members as of late 2011, and signing an agreement that there would be no more tribal disenrollments in the future.

Reid said they are also concerned that Saturday's General Council meeting will not be run by tribal members, but will be controlled and run by someone appointed by the Lewis council -- what Reid believes happened during last year's General Council meeting.

Richard Verri, lawyer representing Lewis’ council, said members who received debarments from casino property last year will be able to attend the General Council meeting in Fresno Saturday. Disenrolled members may be able to attend the meeting, but will not be counted to meet the quorum requirement, and will not be able to vote, Verri said.

“I think this discussion has not been finalized on letting individuals who have been a part of the tribe, and who have been disenrolled, participate in at least part of the meeting, so they have an opportunity to voice their position on matters, but they certainly would not be counted as a members for the quorum requirement, because they are not a member of the tribe,” Verri said.

The tribal council does not have the authority to bring back disenrolled members, Verri said. However, disenrolled tribal members can reapply to be members, as spelled out in a tribal ordinance, he said.

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