By Alan Sorensen
About 50 area members of the Little Shell Band of Chippewa met Saturday to discuss legal action against tribal leaders who voided the tribe's November election.
The meeting of what was called the Little Shell People's Council was arranged by the group calling itself the Little Shell Seven. The Little Shell Seven consists of tribal members who claim the Little Shell Tribal Council acted illegally in voiding last fall's election.
Tribal leaders reportedly voided the Nov. 18, 2000 election on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2000. They also kicked two members off the council and barred six candidates from running in the special election they planned to hold in January or February. That election has never been held.
A council spokesman said at the time that the action was taken because the candidates used unauthorized mailing lists.
Removed from office were Caroline Fleury and Alvina Allen. The disqualified candidates were Allen, Darrel Koke, John Sinclair, Diann Grantham, Ed Lavenger and Larry Salois.
The special election ballot was to be limited to the remaining candidates on the November ballot, according to an Associated Press story Dec. 12.
Candidates the council said would remain on the ballot were John Gilbert of Chinook, the lone candidate for tribal chairman; Tim Zimmerman of Billings, current chairman and lone candidate for first vice chairman; Tobe Whitaker of Great Falls, the only candidate for secretary/treasurer.
Three members of the Little Shell Seven chaired the meeting: John Sinclair, candidate for tribal council chairman whose candidacy was voided; Larry Salois and Ed Lavenger.
The meeting began with a feed, followed by open discussion of tribal issues and a passing of the hat to help the Little Shell Seven's legal fund.
The Little Shell Seven successfully argued for a temporary restraining order before District Court Judge Kenneth R. Neill in Great Falls. Neill signed the order Feb. 12 and scheduled a hearing for Friday in Great Falls in which both sides will argue their causes.
In the meantime, the 12 tribal leaders named in the suit were enjoined from destroying, defacing or otherwise altering the election ballots and from taking any further action as officials of the Tribe.
Sinclair said that the tribal officials who voided the election are claiming sovereignty and denying that the state court has any authority over them or the Tribe. Sinclair said that the Tribe has received state recognition but not federal recognition and is, therefore, answerable to the state and federal governments.
Lavenger said that regardless of its jurisdiction over tribes, the state still holds authority over the Little Shell as an incorporated non-profit organization. The Little Shell Seven has every right to pursue the civil suit against the council, he said.
Saturday's meeting wasn't an official tribal meeting and was open to the public and entirely legal, Sinclair said. "We don't exclude anyone from our meetings."
No one at the meeting expressed opposition to the Little Shell Seven action or support for the council.
"I don't see any tribal law that we've broken," Lavenger said. "And we can hold them liable for two articles in the constitution."
Lavenger added that those tribal council members mentioned in the restraining order must show up or face jail time on contempt of court charges.
"Prior to filing this law suit, we wanted to come to some kind of agreement with our membership," Salois said. "We wanted to mediate and they refused mediation several times."
Salois said the legal action was forced by the tribal council's refusal to respond to repeated requests to settle the dispute. He said the costs in time, money and energy are extreme and would be unnecessary if the council acted responsibly.
"We're in this lawsuit ... not because of our actions," Sinclair said. "Maybe they'll counter sue us. We hope they do."
The three said there are several things that Little Shell members can do to help their cause. They encouraged everyone to contact their state and federal legislative representatives, Bureau of Indian Affairs officials and the governor. "Let those people know what your concerns are, that we want a solution to this," Salois said. "We want our federal recognition; that will help."
They also asked the membership to protest Zimmerman's nomination for director of Indian Affairs in the governor's office.
"I don't think that's anything we want," Sinclair said. "If he gets in there, it just makes another layer that we have to work through."
"If he can't represent the interests of the Little Shell, I don't see how he can represent the interests of the Indians of Montana," Salois said.
They also hope the membership can help construct a new constitution through area teams.
Former Tribal Chairwoman Debbie Swanson said that a new constitution was drafted during her term but was kept under wraps because of the cost of getting it out to the membership for approval. "We decided to wait for federal recognition and let the federal government pay for it," Swanson said.
Sinclair said that if nothing else, the teams could use that constitution as a guide to changes they want to make in the existing constitution and bylaws.
"I like the idea of the area committees," Sinclair said. "It gives people a chance to get involved, feel that they're involved."
Before adjourning and taking the collection, the members elected Bonnie Doney their area contact and Candy Shortell their alternate contact. The contact's jobs include keeping Havre and Chinook area members informed of what is going on and set up any meetings that are needed.
The Little Shell People's Council is scheduled to meet in Cut Bank this Saturday, the day after their court appearance in Great Falls on behalf of the November election and their positions in tribal government.