Fight for control of Oklahoma tribal group escalating

By Murray Evens
Concho, Oklahoma (AP) April 2011

Traditionally one of the poorer American Indian groups in Oklahoma, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes have come into millions of dollars in the last decade because of the success of their casinos.

That business success has led to bitter infighting among the Cheyenne-Arapahos over who will control the gaming bounty. The battle has escalated in recent weeks, with two elected officials each claiming to be the tribes’ governor and running what appear to be separate tribal governments.

The situation leaves the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to determine who to recognize as the leader of the Cheyenne-Arapahos, who claim about 13,000 members. No one will say when a decision may come.

“The Cheyenne-Arapahos are a flashpoint,” said Oklahoma City attorney Rick Grellner, who provides counsel for the Tribal Council, a group consisting of all adult members of the tribes. “They’re caught between the old ways and the new ways. They’re still dysfunctional. They are an easy target in some respects because they are not as sophisticated as other tribes.”

The Cheyennes and Arapahos have been allies for centuries and organized under a single government in 1937. The tribe’s most recent constitution was ratified by voters in 2006 and Darrell Flyingman was elected as the first governor under that document.

During his tenure, Flyingman often was at odds with other tribal officials and the tribes’ legislature, and the tension grew as profits from the tribes’ four casinos increased. An audit by the National Indian Gaming Commission in 2008 indicated the tribes received $26.6 million in 2006 and $26.8 million in 2007 from casino operations.

Flyingman ran for re-election but lost in November 2009 to Janice Prairie Chief-Boswell and her running mate, Leslie Harjo. In the days after the election, some tribal members tried to keep Flyingman from entering the tribal complex in Concho, saying they didn’t want him to harm the tribe during his final weeks in office.

Boswell took office the following January, with Harjo as the lieutenant governor, but their union quickly disintegrated. Both sides accuse the other of various misdeeds and constitutional violations. Boswell said she’s suspended Harjo for insubordination; Harjo has sought the tribal legislature’s assistance in trying to oust Boswell.

Harjo claims that because the legislature impeached Boswell and removed her from office in March, she is now the rightful governor. Boswell claims that legislative meeting was illegal and has suspended the pay of all but two legislators, saying they are not properly performing their duties.

Both sides also recognize different sets of tribal court judges, who have made conflicting rulings, and each has their own attorney general. While Boswell still operates out of the tribal headquarters, Harjo and her allies have set up shop in nearby El Reno.

Earlier this month, Harjo and her allies tried to move into the tribal headquarters. Boswell said BIA police officers watched and did nothing to stop as Harjo’s allies rifled through files in the governor’s office. Harjo’s allies said a BIA decision in their favor – recognizing judges who had suspended Boswell from office – made Harjo the rightful governor and that they simply were securing documents.

“We are not asking the federal government to decide who the officials are of the government,” Oliver said. “Our court system already has decided who the lawful governor is.”

Regional BIA officials in Anadarko, Concho and Muskogee have not returned multiple phone messages left by The Associated Press, and neither has Washington, D.C.-based BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling. Recent BIA letters sent to the parties involved do little to clear up who is in charge.

According to a March 28 letter from Betty Tippeconnie, the superintendent of the BIA office in Concho, “while normally it is our position that the issue of who constitutes the correct court would be a matter solely for the Tribes to decide, in this case it appears that there is a need to make a decision on this matter.”

The letter went on to say that the BIA would recognize the justices supported by Harjo’s side, but Boswell said she will appeal that decision.

Also on March 28, the BIA’s Board of Indian Appeals vacated a decision by Anadarko-based BIA Southern Plains Regional Director Dan Deerinwater that recognized Boswell as chief. The appeals board sent the matter back to Deerinwater for reconsideration. Boswell also is appealing that board’s ruling.

On April 4, a letter signed by Paul Knight, who identified himself as the acting superintendent of the BIA’s Concho office, said that “at this time no decision has been made on the order of the tribal court suspending the Governor or her authority; it is under review.”

There’s also a federal court case in which Harjo is seeking to take control of the tribes’ bank accounts from Boswell. No hearings are currently set in that case, although Boswell is seeking dismissal of the case, citing tribal immunity from such lawsuits, said her attorney, Thomasina Real Bird of Louisville, Colo.

The tribes’ casinos continue to operate normally, said Mark Rodgers, the marketing director for the Lucky Star Casino, which has sites in Concho and Clinton.

Those on both sides agree on one thing: the dispute needs to be resolved soon.

“How shameful it must be to the ancestors of the tribes to see this infighting,” said Lisa Liebl, a spokeswoman for Boswell.