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Petition filed seeking recall of Spirit Lake leader

By Chuck Haga

Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Opponents of Spirit Lake Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton Sr. filed petitions Monday seeking to recall him as chairman.

Erich Longie, one of seven Spirit Lake Tribe members who presented the petitions to the tribal secretary, said the documents contain about 580 names, or about 40 more than they were told are required by tribal law.

Longie said the tribe has seven days to verify the petitions and signatures and convene a recall meeting of all interested members of the tribe, at which Yankton and those who seek his ouster would be allowed to speak.

Members present then would vote by secret ballot, he said. If the vote were to go against Yankton, “he would be out at that moment,” nominations for a new chairman would be made “and the highest vote-getter would be sworn in.”

Attempts to reach Yankton or other tribal officials for comment Monday were unsuccessful.

Leadership questioned

Dissidents have accused Yankton of oppressive behavior, corruption and failure to provide proper leadership, including but not limited to his handling of the ongoing child protection problems that have brought the tribe much negative attention the past year. In statements issued through a public relations firm, he has disputed those allegations and attributed the efforts against him to troublemakers seeking to divide the tribe.

“We are tired of living in fear,” said Longie, a Spirit Lake elder who operates a consulting business on the reservation. “We want the chance to restore what little rights we have. We want to be free of fear of being fired (from reservation jobs) without due process … We want to live free of tyranny.”

Longie said that he and others believe the tribe’s constitution needs revision to make more clear the powers and responsibilities of tribal leaders. Vague provisions now “allow Roger to make up rules as he goes.”

The petition backers say they lament the lack of an independent judiciary, and they fault Yankton for neglecting day-to-day administration of the tribe, such as failing to meet a deadline to renew the tribe’s arrangement with a regional appeals court.

Earlier attempt

The petition drive was started after a failed attempt by tribal elders in April to remove Yankton as chairman. On a vote of 114-3, elders who convened a “general assembly meeting” declared Yankton removed from office. They then named Leander (Russ) McDonald, an administrator at the tribal college, to replace him.

McDonald, who had lost to Yankton in the May 2011 election for chairman, was sworn in the next day in a traditional ceremony, but he later met with Yankton and agreed that proper procedure had not been followed.

McDonald told the chairman that the elders’ action “was a message that the people were fed up with no communication and other things happening with tribal government,” and he was acting “as their front man.”

Yankton later issued a statement to tribe members declaring his opponents’ actions unconstitutional and invalid. He said those actions divide the tribe and “divert resources and focus from the critically important work” of the Spirit Lake Nation. “Only by working together can we make the lives of the Spirit Lake Oyate better.”

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