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Spirit Lake petitioners weigh options

GRAND FORKS -- Spirit Lake Nation members seeking to replace Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton Sr. said Friday they are nearing their goal of 600 signatures on a recall petition.

"We think the hard count right now is 522," said Erich Longie, one of the leaders of the petition effort, who met with other petition circulators Thursday night.

Based on a tribal court ruling last year, the petitioners believe they need 540 signatures to force a recall vote, based on the number of votes cast in the last general election. An attempt to oust Yankton last year failed when a special tribal judge ruled the petition invalid.

"We hope to be at that 540 number when we meet to count again" this weekend, Longie said, but the group intends to continue circulating petitions until it has 600 signatures, in case some signatures are scratched during certification.

Yankton opponents continue to debate when to submit their petition to the Tribal Council, with some wanting to wait until after Vice Chairman Duane Jackson is replaced.

Jackson, generally considered a Yankton ally, would receive a petition calling for the chairman's recall and be responsible for the certification process. But Jackson lost his council seat in a recent council primary; two challengers will face off May 7.

Two of four district seats on the council are being contested, as well as the position of tribal secretary, but not the chairmanship.

The petitioners may decide to "wait until the new members are sworn in," Longie said.

"A lot of people say they are scared" of Yankton and his administration, he said, including many who say they are too scared to sign a petition seeking his removal.

"That speaks to the huge dissatisfaction members feel toward the current leadership," Longie said.

Yankton did not respond to a request for comment Friday. He has been unavailable for comment since the efforts to oust him as chairman picked up steam earlier this month.

At an emergency assembly April 14, participants voted 114-3 to remove Yankton as tribal chairman and voted to replace him with Leander "Russ" McDonald, a tribal college administrator. McDonald was sworn in as chairman at a traditional ceremony the next day, but he later met with Yankton and the two agreed the tribal constitution requires a petition and recall vote.

In the meantime, Yankton remains chairman, a status confirmed April 18 by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Longie said there is no time limit for signing the petition, and the constitution does not require that it specify a reason for removing a tribal official. There has been widespread criticism of Yankton's leadership, especially with regard to the ongoing child protection issue. Another member of the Tribal Council, Clarice Brownshield -- suspended earlier this month by Yankton -- has accused him of corruption.

Within seven days from the time a petition to recall the chairman has been submitted and the signatures verified, the vice chairman is to call a recall meeting open to all tribal members, Longie said. There, the chairman may make a case for retaining his position, and opponents may make their case.

If the assembly then votes to recall the chairman, members may nominate candidates to succeed him.

Longie, a consultant and teacher at Spirit Lake, said he and others seeking to remove Yankton "will be glad to go back to our lives," but they believe it is important for the tribe that the recall succeeds.

"We all know that if we don't succeed, there will be hell to pay," he said. "His (Yankton's) retribution will be swift."