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Spirit Lake leader removed again, but without replacement

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FORT TOTTEN, N.D. -- The Spirit Lake Nation is now without a chairman after Roger Yankton was removed from that office by a preliminary decision from an appeals court.

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The man voted to replace him, Leander "Russ" McDonald, now serves on the Tribal Council and declined to take over as chairman until a final decision from the court. If the court were to put Yankton back into office, McDonald would lose both the chairmanship and his seat on the council as representative of the Fort Totten District.

"Tribal government can't stop. Government wherever you are can't stop, and the goal is to continue for that to happen so I'll serve in the Fort Totten district," McDonald said.

Yankton had been chairman until earlier this month when tribal members voted him out 284-145 in a recall election. McDonald took over the chairmanship until Tuesday, when a Spirit Lake tribal judge reinstated Yankton and he was sworn in Wednesday morning; McDonald was sworn in as council member at the same ceremony. By Wednesday afternoon, Yankton was again removed when the Northern Plains Intertribal Court of Appeals issued a stay of the Spirit Lake court's decision.

After three members of the Tribal Council affirmed the appeals court's stay Thursday, Yankton and a handful of his supporters refused to leave the chairman's office for more than an hour.

Fort Totten Police Chief Marty Foote said Yankton eventually left peacefully shortly after 5 p.m. None of Yankton's supporters in his office would offer comment.

Among his supporters is tribal attorney Larry Leventhal, who wrote an opinion that the appeals court ruling is invalid. The Tribal Council cut ties with Leventhal on Thursday.

"There was some contention today among those present, as well as tribal council that they were in disagreement with what he wrote," McDonald said.

Yankton's opponents, who accuse Yankton of corruption and intimidation, applauded the council's decision.

"I think it took a tremendous amount of courage on their part to take the actions they did," said Erich Longie, a tribal elder who took the lead in the recall petition.

Without Yankton, the chairman's position will be vacant until the appeals court can sort through the controversy. It's expected to take up the issue again Aug. 9.

"He's out, and that needs to be determined in a court of law," McDonald said of Yankton.

If Yankton's opponents win the appeal, McDonald will then assume the chairman's seat.

"I'm very confident we will win our case," Longie said.

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