John Gilbert is the legitimately elected president of the Little Shell Band of Chippewa Indians, a three-member panel of judges has ruled.
The ruling was announced Saturday.
The ruling deposes John Sinclair of Havre as tribal president.
The 4,300-member tribe, with a strong presence in Havre, has been torn by dissension during the three-year long battle for control.
Sinclair was elected president in 2004, but scheduled elections were not held in 2008 because of internal discord. By the time they were held in 2009, Sinclair and his supporters on the Elections Committee had either ruled opposition candidates were ineligible to run for office or expelled them from the tribe.
Members of the Little Shell Alliance, claiming that Sinclair's authority expired on Jan. 1, 2009, then formed their own government, electing Gilbert, a Great Falls resident, as its president.
With Gilbert and Sinclair both claiming to be the legitimate leaders, federal and state officials took a hands-off attitude, resulting in the tribe losing potential state and federal funding.
A two sides agreed on little, but they finally consented to present their cases to a three-member panel of judges. The judges heard testimony Saturday, Dec. 10, at Montana State University-Great Falls.
On the four major issues, the judges sided entirely with Gilbert's faction:
• Sinclair was obligated to hold elections before Jan. 1, 2009, they ruled. Failing to do that, he was no longer the legitimate president after Jan. 1, 2009.
• The disqualifications and expulsions from the tribe were in violation of the Little Shell constitution, the ruling said.
"The persons disenrolled were disenrolled in violation of their substantive and procedural due process rights," the judges said, ordering those members be reinstated.
• Because of the power vacuum that existed, the Little Shell Alliance was within its rights to hold a referendum allowing it to become the legitimate governing body.
• The Alliance-backed elections that put Gilbert in power were in accordance with the constitution.
During the dispute, the Little Shell lost $617,000 in potential stimulus money that was to be funneled to the tribe through the state. State officials cited problems with the Little Shell's accounting practices and the lack of a unified government.
"We need to get income stream," Gilbert told The Associated Press on Saturday.
"We need some cash flow, we need some money," he said.
Sinclair was was not available for comment on Saturday.
The Little Shell tribe has no reservation, and while it is recognized as an official tribe by the state of Montana, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has not followed suit.