Oklahoma tribal members protest at regional BIA office

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By Murray Evans
Anadarko, Oklahoma (AP) June 2011

Supporters of a woman who says she is the rightful governor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes protested outside a regional Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Anadarko, urging the agency to quickly resolve a tribal dispute in her favor.

But a BIA deputy regional director told The Associated Press it’s unlikely the power struggle between former political allies Janice Boswell and Leslie Harjo will be settled soon because the matter is tied up in an appeals process. Boswell has remained in office as governor, even while Harjo maintains that’s now her job and seeks recognition by the BIA.

“We hope that maybe some change or understanding will come about to resolve the dispute within the tribe,” said Terry Bruner, the deputy regional director for Indian services for the BIA’s Southern Plains Region.

The man who could ultimately decide the issue, Southern Plains Regional Director Dan Deerinwater, wasn’t at his office. Still, about 25 people supporting Harjo – including Michael Kodaseet, the speaker of the tribal Legislature – stood under trees near the BIA office on a steamy day, holding signs that read “BIA No More Delay” and “BIA Law Enforcement Supports Fascism.”

A makeshift noose hung from one of the trees, with an attached sign reading, “This Is How You Suspend A C/A Governor.” Harjo’s supporters say the tribal Legislature suspended Boswell and removed her from office in March, thus making Harjo the governor.

Boswell has said she suspended Harjo for insubordination. Boswell said the legislative meeting during which she was suspended was illegal and has suspended the pay for all but two legislators, saying they are not properly performing their duties.

“Our civil rights are being violated daily,” Harjo said.

Harjo and Boswell both lay claim to the governorship of the Concho-based tribes, who have a membership of about 13,000 people. Boswell took office in January 2010 as governor with Harjo as the lieutenant governor. Both have accused the other of various misdeeds and constitutional violations and have been overseeing what amount to separate governments, each with their own judges and attorney general.

While Boswell operates out of tribal headquarters, Harjo and her supporters work out of an office in El Reno, just south of Concho.

Both sides claim to be supported in their positions by court rulings issued by their favored set of judges, leaving the BIA in what Bruner said is an uncomfortable position of determining which side is abiding by the tribal constitution. He said BIA law enforcement officers have been advised “on court orders that may be political that they are to refrain from action.”

On March 28, the federal Interior Board of Indian Appeals vacated a decision by Deerinwater that recognized Boswell as the governor and sent the matter back to Deerinwater for reconsideration. That matter remains pending, Bruner said.

The same day, Betty Tippeconnie, the superintendent of the BIA office in Concho – which falls under the Anadarko office’s leadership – said in a letter the BIA would recognize the tribal justices supported by Harjo’s side.

Boswell has appealed both rulings.

Bruner said there is no deadline for Deerinwater’s ruling, but maintained the BIA is sensitive to the hardship some tribal members are enduring because of the conflict.

“We know that the tribes and its members are hurting,” he said, adding the BIA is working to ensure most services provided to tribal members are being provided.

There’s also a pending federal court case, in which Harjo is seeking to take control of the tribes’ bank accounts from Boswell. Harjo has asked U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot for a hearing in the case this month. Boswell has said the federal suit is invalid, citing tribal sovereignty.

Boswell’s spokeswoman, Lisa Liebl, said that Boswell is simply doing what tribal members want her to do. Liebl said the results of a May 7 tribal council meeting bear that out.

During that meeting, the tribal council – which consists of all adult members of the tribes – passed resolutions recognizing Boswell as the governor and a slate of judges she supports as tribal Supreme Court justices. Other agenda items sought to repeal recent actions of the tribal Legislature and annul attempts to submit the dispute to federal court.

Harjo and her supporters say that meeting was invalid, because the tribal council coordinator who called the meeting is an imposter.




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