GREAT FALLS — Members of the Little Shell Alliance Saturday painted a picture of Little Shell Tribal President John Sinclair of Havre as a ruthless dictator who will stop at nothing to defeat political opponents.
And Sinclair supporters said the alliance was full of people who were willing to violate the tribe's constitution and traditions to conduct "an invalid coup" to overturn the legitimately elected tribal government.
The two sides presented their cases at a hearing before a three-judge panel at Montana State University's College of Technology. The hearing was set up with the help of the Native American Rights Fund to settle the three-year-old bitter dispute between the two tribal councils claiming to be the tribe's legitimate governing body.
The judges' panel, consisting of Native American jurists from Wisconsin and California, are required to come up with a decision in 60 days, though they said they hoped to complete their work by the first of the year.
Legitimacy of elections challenged
The Little Shell Alliance was formed in 2009, after disputes over the election of officers.
The voting was to be held in 2008, but Sinclair said they had to be delayed because of internal disputes.
When they were held in 2009, nine people opposing Sinclair's slate were ruled off the ballot. Some were tossed from the ballot for allegedly violating tribal rules, while others were thrown out of the tribe altogether through a process known as disenrollment.
In closing arguments, Donna Woodward, one of the Alliance lawyers, said that in the history of Little Shell, the only people who had ever been disenrolled were Sinclair's political opponents. She said that under the tribal constitution, people can be thrown out of the tribe only by a referendum of the members.
Gerald Gray, vice president of a Billings advertising firm, said he received a letter saying he was ineligible to run for office because he had been convicted of "multiple felonies."
He said he had never been convicted of any.
Others testified of similar inaccuracies.
Sinclair testified that people were disenrolled because they could not prove they had sufficient Little Shell lineage.
Hope for a deal
The dispute has been full of vitriolic comments between the two sides, but for a moment Saturday, it appeared that an out-of-court settlement might be reached.
Robert LaFountain, the attorney for the Sinclair faction, asked for a recess so the two sides could discuss a settlement.
But 30 minutes later, the hearing resumed.
Sinclair later told a reporter that the two sides were close on the subject of holding new elections to get a fresh start, but couldn't agree on the legitimacy of the disenrollments.
In his closing arguments, LaFountain suggested that the judges might order a new election, perhaps under NARF's supervision.
The controversial election
The key question in the hearing was the legitimacy of the 2009 election that re-elected Sinclair.
Sinclair said the elections could not be held in 2008, when mandated by the constitution, because of the tumult over the disenrollments.
But Woodward argued that Sinclair's term expired at the end of 2008, and that in the "vacuum of power," the Alliance set up its legitimate elections. Witnesses testified that the Alliance elections followed strict rules, but did not toss any candidates from the ballot.
But LaFountain said Sinclair had the right to extend the terms of the existing council until the elections could be held in 2009.
The Alliance elections were tantamount to "an invalid coup," he said.
"This is not an Arabian country," he said. "This certainly is not allowed in Indian country."
But Woodward disagreed.
"It is an Indian tradition to overthrow a tyrant," she said.
But, she said, that was not the case here.
"There was no sitting government," she said, since Sinclair's term had expired and there was no provision for the tribal council to extend it.
Thus, she said, the Alliance, following the precepts of the tribal constitution, formed the new government.
Sinclair was also criticized for not having elections in 2010. The off-year elections were to elect tribal council members. Sinclair said only two people ran for three positions. He said it was hard to attract candidates because of the tumult.
Just the same, on the witness stand, Sinclair said he should have held elections.
The closing prayer
At the conclusion of the hearing, an elder asked that the participants and the observers join in a prayer circle, which they did.
The Little Shell tribal controversy
• The Little Shell Band of Chippewa Indians is headed by John Sinclair of Havre.
• Little Shell Alliance is headed by John Gilbert of Great Falls.
• The tribe has no reservation.
• It is recognized as a tribe by the Montana state government, but the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has steadfastly refused to follow suit.
• There are about 4,500 enrolled members. Members of the tribe live in most parts of the United States.
• There are many Little Shell members in Havre. Many others are scattered throughout Montana, with a great number in Great Falls.
• To be enrolled, people must be able to prove they are one-quarter Pembina blood or one-eighth Pembina blood with an enrolled parent.