Rift mended at Chukchansi tribal meeting, but who runs tribe unclear

The Fresno BeeSeptember 24, 2013 

A rift between two factions of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians appears on the mend after a weekend gathering in Fresno. But the meeting did little to resolve a larger question: Who controls the tribe?

Members of a council led by Reggie Lewis invited members of the tribe, including those from two other rival factions, to a voting meeting Sept. 14 at the Fresno Convention Center.

About 300 tribal members voted to lift suspensions of a faction led by Morris Reid and including Dora Jones, Dixie Jackson and Harold Hammond.

All four were suspended last year by a council that was at the time led by Lewis. The four had won a 2011 election that was later nullified. Reid faction members then holed themselves up in the tribe's Coarsegold offices in protest last year.

The suspensions of about 60 of Reid's supporters also were lifted, said Richard Verri, lawyer for the Lewis group. They were stripped of voting rights last year.

Those who attended — representing about one-third of the tribe — also declared their allegiance to Lewis and members of his tribal council, Verri said.

But tribal council Chairwoman Nancy Ayala called the meeting illegal and another attempt to "sabotage our tribe and sow confusion among our people."

Those attending the meeting were given a $1,000 stipend — which the Ayala faction called a "bribe."

Verri said the $1,000 stipend is not unusual among tribes and was given last year when the Lewis faction, which then included Ayala, held a council meeting at the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold, which rakes in an estimated $100 million annually for the tribe.

"Nancy Ayala participated in that and never objected to it," Verri said.

The factions led by Ayala and Lewis have been at odds since February, when Ayala backed a referendum that removed Lewis and his supporters from the tribal council.

David Leibowitz, a spokesman for the Ayala group, said only Ayala can call a meeting of the tribe because she is the chairwoman.

"Anything that happened at the meeting is not binding," he said.

Adding to the ongoing strife: Reid on Monday said he does not recognize the authority of either the Lewis or Ayala factions.

"They had no authority to run a meeting," Reid said.

Hammond and Jones attended Saturday's meeting. Reid was at the convention center, but on Monday said that neither he nor Jackson attended the meeting.

The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs in May recognized a tribal council that was elected in December 2012 that included Ayala as tribal chairwoman and Lewis as vice chairman.

But this summer, two federal agencies — the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency — froze payments to the tribe, saying it was unclear who is in charge.

Reid has asked the Department of Interior's Board of Indian Appeals to reverse the nullification of his 2011 election victory. Reid's appeal is still under consideration.

No date has been set for a resolution.

Reid said his group would give up its appeal if an open vote was held for all seven council seats and if disenrollments since the 2011 election are overturned.

Reid also was concerned about the $1,000 stipend. He said many tribe members need money and otherwise would not have attended.

"They knew they could never get a voting quorum without the enticement of money," Reid said.

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