Power Struggle over Indian Tribe Splinters into Violence in California

Ian Lovett, New York Times, February 28, 2012

For two months, after a disputed election, the fight for control of the Chukchansi Indian tribe was a standoff: two groups claimed to be the rightful tribal council, each holding separate meetings and appealing to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for official recognition. But the bureau said it was an internal tribal matter, and the two sides had to work it out on their own.

Here is what working it out on their own looked like: supporters of Morris Reid, who said he was elected the new tribal council chairman in December, cut locks and smashed a window to gain access to one of the tribal government offices early Monday morning.

Then late that night, across the street from the glittering Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino, supporters of Reggie Lewis, the council chairman before the election, tried to smoke Mr. Reid out. Power to the building was cut. A window was broken. Bear spray was discharged into the building. A smoldering log was thrown inside. More windows were broken, and objects were thrown from the building.

The sheriff kept watch, but no arrests were made—on Indian land, he said he had no jurisdiction to deal with property damage.

The standoff finally ended on Tuesday, after a melee outside the building involving at least 20 people from the opposing sides. One man was stabbed in the abdomen, though he was expected to live, while a security guard was bashed over the head, and two suspects were detained. Only then did the local sheriff’s department come in from the sidelines, with more than 100 officers from multiple agencies, and begin clearing the premises. By day’s end, neither faction had control of the building.

“The Bureau of Indian Affairs said it was an internal tribal matter and we had to resolve it through a tribal process,” Mr. Reid said. “That means we had to take possession, and we tried to do that without breaking any laws.”

The fight for control of the Chukchansi is only the latest—and among the ugliest—in a long string of power struggles in tribes across the country. Whereas courts swiftly step in to decide disputed elections in most of the country, federal courts have no jurisdiction over Indian tribal lands, which are considered sovereign nations, while the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency responsible for maintaining the relationship between the federal government and Indian tribes, is hesitant to intervene in tribal squabbles.

With no external government agency to enforce the law, tribal elections frequently resemble elections in developing countries—sitting chiefs refuse to give up power, struggles for control sometimes turn violent and possession is at least nine-tenths of the law.

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Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, insisted that the tribal members would have to resolve the issue themselves.

“We hope the tribe will work through their tribal government issues and come to their solution soon,” she said.

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