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Voters have their say: Spirit Lake council changes

FORT TOTTEN -- Two incumbent members of the Spirit Lake Tribal Council lost their seats in Tuesday's general election.

Leander "Russ" McDonald, who was briefly regarded as tribal chairman last month by members seeking to oust Chairman Roger Yankton Sr., won the Fort Totten District seat on the council. He defeated incumbent Clarice Brownshield, 202 votes to 188, according to an election board official.

Brownshield had been suspended from the council last month by Yankton. She then convened a district meeting and accused the chairman and council of corruption, evidence of which she said she had provided to the FBI.

For tribal secretary-treasurer, challenger Nancy Greene-Robertson defeated incumbent Barbara Jackson, 527-388.

In the St. Michael District, Mardell Merrick-Lewis defeated Robert Thompson Sr., 177-149.

Just before the election, Yankton had issued a statement to tribe members declaring unconstitutional and invalid the recent actions of people opposed to his leadership, including the naming and ceremonial swearing in of McDonald as new chairman.

Those actions divide the tribe and "divert resources and focus from the critically important work" of the Spirit Lake Nation, Yankton said. "Only by working together can we make the lives of the Spirit Lake Oyate better."

The tribe has struggled with chronic poverty, unemployment and the effects of flooding on Devils Lake, which the reservation borders. It also has faced intense scrutiny and criticism for the handling of what's been called a child protection crisis.

Yankton said he "continues to serve as tribal chairman and all existing council members remain in office until the Spirit Lake Tribe finalizes its general election."

Doug "Chuck" Longie, head of the tribe's election board, said the final certified results were turned in Wednesday. He said the new council members will take their seats on May 28.

Yankton's criticism

In his statement, published Monday on the Devils Lake Daily Journal's website, Yankton noted that three weeks earlier "a group of tribal members conducted a meeting and characterized it as a general assembly," which was said to have "concluded with the election of a new tribal chairman."

But he said the meeting was "not open to all members of the tribe who wished to attend," including members who wanted to challenge "the conduct being displayed by a faction of individuals."

By its constitution and bylaws, the tribe has established correct procedures for elections, including recall efforts, he said. Those guidelines require "filing with the council office a petition containing the signatures of not less that 20 percent of the qualified resident voters of the district or districts of the council member or members involved."

"In this instance, no such petition was circulated or filed with offices of the council," Yankton said, and consequently "the results of the gatherings on April 14 and 15 are invalid."

A petition seeking a recall election has been circulating and has more than the required signatures, according to its backers. They say they are seeking additional signatures before submitting the petition to the tribe's vice chairman for verification.

Yankton noted that McDonald, who was named by people at the April meetings to replace Yankton, met with him on April 15 and "acknowledged the constitution and by-laws of the Spirit Lake Tribe were not followed." He said McDonald "apologized for his part in the gathering and show of ceremony appointing him as the tribal chairman."

McDonald, an administrator at the tribal college, had confirmed that understanding in an interview with the Herald April 16.

"I met with Roger and told him that this was a message that the people were fed up with no communication and other things happening with tribal government," McDonald said then. "I told him they chose me as their front man."

Yankton "knows the constitution, and so do I," he said. "Legally, in order to oust any of the council you need to have a petition and recall vote. Some of the elders came to me (at the time of his swearing in) and said that according to our tradition this is valid. But we looked at the constitution, Roger and I, and we agreed."

Yankton: voters confused

Petition circulators have said that, if Yankton is recalled, a number of candidates including McDonald may be put forth to replace him.

Yankton has been unavailable for comment since the effort to remove him gained steam last month.

In his prepared statement this week, Yankton said the meetings and "invalid" ceremonial inauguration of McDonald had confused voters and contributed to a low voter turnout in the April 16 tribal primary election.

"The Spirit Lake Council believes this confusion resulted in disenfranchising" some tribal members, he said.