Nov 12, 2013 1:33 PM by Sanjay Talwani - Helena
HELENA - The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has stepped into a personnel conflict in the Blackfeet Tribal government, suggesting that the tribe's instability could affect federal contracts.
In a letter Friday, the BIA said the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council needed a quorum - six of its nine members - for its action last week appointing a new treasurer and personnel director, replacing those removed earlier by the council.
Those positions are part of the core tribal government functions that need "to be stable and in place to demonstrate that the Tribe has the capacity to carry out the tribal self-governance functions for federal contracts awarded to the Tribe," says the letter, signed by BIA Blackfeet Agency acting supervisor Thedis Crowe.
The BIA letter leaves room for interpretation on whether it recognizes the recent reinstatement by the council chairman of three council members suspended last year-Cheryl Little Dog, Paul McEvers and Bill Old Chief.
"If these Council members were suspended by a (Council) resolution supported by a quorum, then to remove them from suspension and bestow voting privileges would also require an action by the (Council) resolution that meets the quorum requirement," the letter says.
Council member Roger "Sassy" Running Crane said in a press statement Friday that this means the three remain suspended.
But Council Chairman Willie Sharp and the three suspended members disagree. They say the BIA has allowed the tribe to take actions using just a quorum of its executive committee in the past and has now changed its tune.
"It's our business who we want as a treasurer," Sharp said. "Not theirs."
He blamed two members of the other faction - Running Crane and Shannon Augare (the Democratic state senator who recently pled guilty to DUI in both tribal and federal courts) - for influencing the BIA.
"That was all fine and dandy with the Bureau," Sharp said of actions previously taken by the council's executive committee. "What is the difference between last year and this year?"
With the council split into two factions, it has "limped along" without ever having all nine members in place at once in recent months, he said.
"We have Mr Running Crane and Mr. Augare running to the BIA every day, trying to get them involved," Sharp said.
Running Crane did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment Monday evening. Augare could not be reached on his mobile phone.
Sharp and the suspended council members also say they reject a tribal court order backing the BIA letter and calling for law enforcement to remove the suspended members from the tribal headquarters if necessary.
They said the order has various flaws and in any event, they have no trust in the judge, Allie Edwards, who accepted the guilty plea from Augare Oct. 23 and sentenced him on the DUI and other charges to 37 days in jail, suspended, with fines that could amount to as little as $200. Augare later attempted, unsuccessfully, to have similar charges in federal court dropped.
McEvers called Edwards "the same judge who made a joke of our court for Shannon to evade federal charges."
Old Chief said the BIA is "compromised" by pressure and threats it's receiving.
"It's impossible for them to make a decision without being impacted by the other side," he said "The BIA has lost controls of their Indians. Their Indians are on a warpath and they can't stop them. ... These Indians have gone off the reservation."
Crowe, with the BIA, could not be reached at the number listed on the letter.
Old Chief said what's ahead could be a "dangerous situation" and he's willing to get arrested rather than abandon his post on the council.
He said that beyond the issues on the surface, mostly related to personnel actions by the council, is the issue of tribal membership. He said the faction including Augare want to expand tribal enrollment, which he said could increase enrollment to 85,000 or 90,000 people from its current population of about 17,000.
Little Dog, who uses a wheelchair, is already facing charges of trespassing and assaulting an officer in a previous confrontation.
"If I have to go to jail for the people, I'll do so," she said. "I did it once and I'll do it again."
Sharp and the suspended council members say they've asked the other side to "come to the table" and reach a resolution. They say they've reached out to tribal elders as possible mediators.
Running Crane's press release Friday said any actions taken by Sharp and the three (along with Vice-Chairman Frosty Calf Boss Ribs) are invalid. He asked Sharp and Calf Boss Ribs to "come back to the table" to meet with Running Crane, Augare and the other councilmembers, Earl Old Person and Leonard Guardipee, to conduct the business of the tribe.