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At Spirit Lake, a confusing round of elections, petitions and court decisions

FORT TOTTEN -- Roger Yankton Sr. returned briefly as chairman of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe on Wednesday, sanctioned by a Tribal Court order, but opponents obtained an emergency injunction from an appeals court which again declared him out of the office he was elected to in 2011.

Yankton was sworn in as chairman at 10 a.m. in a brief and lightly attended ceremony closed to the media. It began with the circulation of the Tribal Court order issued Tuesday affirming his claim to the chairmanship. It concluded with drums and singers performing an honor song as tribe members, including many members of Yankton's extended family, lined up to congratulate him.

"That's what the judicial process is for," he said before leaving to huddle with other tribal officials.

But the Tribal Council had met earlier Wednesday and, after voting to renew the tribe's contract with the Northern Plains Intertribal Court of Appeals in Aberdeen, S.D., formally appealed the Tribal Court's order regarding Yankton.

The appeals court responded almost immediately, issuing a writ staying the Tribal Court's order favoring Yankton and directing that "any action contemplated by the order of July 16 ... shall be prohibited until further hearing and order of this court," effectively restoring Leander "Russ" McDonald to the chairmanship.

Until Wednesday, there had been no process of appeal from the Tribal Court because Yankton had not renewed a contract with the appeals court in mid-2011.

Just two weeks ago, hundreds of tribal members had lined up at Four Winds School here to honor McDonald when he was sworn in as chairman following a vote to recall Yankton.

It was the second such swearing-in for McDonald, an administrator at the tribal college, who had lost the 2011 election to Yankton but was chosen to replace him earlier this year by elders of the tribe at a hastily called emergency general assembly.

McDonald later conceded the assembly had not followed tribal law, which requires filing of a petition to force a recall election.

'Defective' petition

Tribe members opposed to Yankton were circulating a petition, which they submitted last month with 578 signatures. They needed 540, or 20 percent of the population of enrolled members residing on the reservation.

The tribe's Election Board canvassed the petition on June 24 and struck 14 names as duplicated, illegible or not enrolled, and three signatures were removed at the request of the signers. That left 548 names, or eight more than required.

But the Election Board met again on June 28 and removed an additional 29 names, apparently after the board received evidence that those signers do not live on the reservation.

Yankton's representative argued at Tribal Court that members of the Election Board were not allowed to inform tribe members at the July 1 recall meeting that the petition was defective. At that meeting, members voted 284-145 to remove Yankton. McDonald was then elected to replace him.

"The recall election that was held on July 1, 2013, was unconstitutional," ruled Patrick Lee, a special judge from South Dakota was who brought in to hear the case in Tribal Court. The recall order removing Yankton from office is "therefore void from the day of its inception" and "Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton Sr. shall be reinstated to his position. ..."

Within hours, the appeals court writ reversed that, at least for now.

Adding somewhat to the confusion, McDonald was sworn in Wednesday morning as a member of the Tribal Council to represent the Fort Totten District. A separate ruling Tuesday by the Tribal Court favored him over former Tribal Council Member Clarice Brownshield.

McDonald had defeated Brownshield for the council seat in the May 7 general election. She appealed, and the Election Board ruled for her. McDonald then appealed that decision, pointing out that Brownshield filed her appeal seven days after the election. Tribal law requires that such an appeal be filed within three days.

Significant needs

McDonald was not immediately available after the appeals court ruling appeared to restore him to the chairmanship.

But earlier Wednesday, just after Yankton's ceremony, McDonald said he would work with him to help the tribe deal with pressing issues.

"Roger made a statement that we need to work together, and I'm in agreement with that," McDonald said. "We shook hands."

He said he senses "a willingness to move in that direction, to benefit the tribe. We need to address the needs of our people. The needs are significant out there."

Yankton declined to answer questions after his swearing in.

The ongoing uncertainty over who is to lead the tribe as it tries to deal with a range of problems, including efforts to upgrade its child protection system, has left many members frustrated and bewildered, said Tony Hunt, 73.

"It doesn't matter to me who is chairman as long as they do positive things for the people," Hunt said as he visited with other tribe members Wednesday morning in the administration building.

"They work for the people," he said, "not for themselves."