In an attempt to resolve the convoluted chaos, a federal judge ruled Monday that the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians be governed by the tribal council elected in 2010 - the last undisputed tribal council.
The ruling backs a recommendation made last February by Bureau of Indian Affairs Pacific Regional Director Amy Dutschke, which recognized the 2010 council for the purpose of government-to-government relations including distributing money to tribal members. A decision that was previously criticized by the IBIA citing the inability of the BIA to prove the possibility of immediate danger to patrons, which would have allowed the IBIA to make a ruling.
The decision by Interior Board of Indian Appeals Judge Steven K. Linscheid to recognize the 2010 council will take effect immediately.
The 2010 council includes members from two feuding factions (Lewis/Ayala and Reid/Jones) and looks to include all seven members who were elected in 2010. Those members are as follows: Reggie Lewis, Nancy Ayala, Morris Reid, Dora Jones, Chance Alberta, Jennifer Stanley and Nokomis Hernandez. Patrick Hammond’s appeal that he was an acting member of the 2010 council was also denied.
The National Indian Gaming Commission, which oversees the casino’s day-to-day operations, will now determine whether they will recognize the 2010 council as a legitimate governing council for the purpose of running the casino and whether or not the casino will be re-opened.
Not everyone agrees with the judge’s decision. Both the “distributees“ faction, who claim only 43 legitimate tribal members, and the “On-Site” tribal council, said the ruling is temporary and both plan to appeal the decision made by the federal judge.
The “On-Site” tribal council is currently led by Donna Featherstone, who recently replaced Tex McDonald after his felony arrest stemming from the Oct. 9 attempted takeover.
It is still unknown whether Judge Linscheid’s ruling will help mend the bitterness between the factions and get the casino back on track to re-open. According to Reid, he and Jones will continue to fight for the 2010 membership list to be used in the upcoming election. Both Jones and Reid agreed that this may have a dramatic effect on who is seated and who can officially run for tribal council.
Meanwhile the Lewis-Ayala faction support the 2012 membership list which has seen more than 100 Reid supporters disenrolled between 2010-2012, something Reid said is undermining the judge’s decision to recognize the 2010 council.
Vice-chairwoman for the “On-Site”council (one of four factions claiming to be the official tribal council) Monica Davis said Monday’s ruling is strictly on an interim basis and that the federal government was in no way making a decision on the official governing body. Instead, Davis believes the judges ruling was solely for federal grant purposes and a way to decide who can distribute those funds. Davis said she is not convinced this will solve the problem.
“It is going to be interesting to see how these two rival factions come together to distribute the funds. This ruling might implode on itself,” Davis said. “This is going to be about the memberships and who is eligible to receive these funds. It’s still going to boil down to the age old question - who’s included in the membership?”
Meanwhile the faction remains on-site at the tribal complex located across the street from the casino and claims to be following federal judge Jonathan O’Neill’s ruling back in October, which stated they could remain in the building while matters were resolved. Davis said that in the meantime, they plan to continue business as usual.
“We are still doing our duties on a daily basis and are communicating with NIGC to get the casino open. We have spoken with bond holders and presented various plans on how we can open the casino. We are constantly brainstorming ideas on how to get the casino back up and running,” Davis said.
In an interview with the Fresno Bee, Lewis expressed resentment towards members of the “On-Site” council, who he says are blatantly disregarding the judges orders as they continue to occupy the tribal building.
“They have to vacate the premises, and if they don’t, we will be asking the sheriff to remove them,” Lewis said.
When asked about how they would respond to an attempt by the 2010 council to remove them from the premises, Davis said she was not concerned, noting neither the federal government or the local law enforcement agencies have the jurisdiction to decide who rightfully runs the tribe.
“There is no jurisdiction to change the status quo,” Davis said. “This must be resolved from within the tribe.”
The judge’s decision to recognize the 2010 council comes just weeks after a controversial meeting was held to determine an interim tribal council until an official tribal election could be held in May. During the meeting, only members from the group that controlled the meeting (Lewis/Ayala) were placed on the ballot and voted into what was called the “unification council.” According to multiple reports from those present at the meeting, microphones were turned off on anyone opposing the group, many of whom were hoping to get a vote on setting a date for a “clean-slate election” versus a vote on an interim council.
According to tribal constitutional law, the only way to pass a Chukchansi law is by tribal council vote, or a vote of the general council (tribal members) with a quorum - currently 280 people. Official numbers from the meeting were not given but an estimated 550 people showed up, many of whom were given travel expense payments to attend. It marked the largest turnout for a general council meeting in the tribe’s history.
Representatives for the Lewis and Reid factions were unable to be reached prior to press time.