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Former Spirit Lake chairman loses effort at reinstatement

GRAND FORKS- An appeals court has vacated a Spirit Lake Tribal Court order reinstating Roger Yankton Sr. as tribal chairman, and jubilant opponents of the former leader predicted the long power struggle is over.

"This is it," said Erich Longie, a Spirit Lake elder and organizer of a petition drive to oust Yankton, who was elected chairman in early 2012. "It's over, and we're celebrating."

In a supervisory writ issued Friday, the Northern Plains Intertribal Court of Appeals in Aberdeen, S.D., overturned the tribal court's July 16 decision that had dismissed a recall petition against Yankton and ordered him reinstated.

Yankton was ceremoniously reinstated the next day in a gathering of supporters, but members of the Tribal Council sought and obtained a stay of that action. The tribal court later issued a restraining order prohibiting the former chairman from entering tribal headquarters or having contact with tribal officials.

Yankton could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Leander "Russ" McDonald, who was twice installed as chairman to replace Yankton, said he will move into the chairman's office this week.

Reached Saturday as he returned from an intertribal leadership conference in Bismarck, McDonald said he and other tribal leaders are ready "to make sure our children are protected and safe." He said he met last week with representatives of the federal Administration for Families and Children and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has been administering child protection services on the reservation for almost a year.

McDonald has been serving in recent weeks as the Fort Totten District representative on the Tribal Council.

"We've been working hard all along," he said, but he chose to stay out of the chairman's office until the leadership question was resolved. "I'll be moving back into the office on Tuesday because there's no question now that the recall process was legal."

He noted that the Tribal Council has appointed a new Tribal Social Services director, Robert O'Keefe, who holds a graduate degree from the University of North Dakota and is a licensed social worker. The tribe also has hired two law-trained judges.

Yankton fights in federal court

Yankton continues to press his case for reinstatement in U.S. District Court in Grand Forks. He filed a lawsuit there Aug. 12, seeking relief from the tribal court's restraining order, which he claims has made him a virtual prisoner on the reservation and unlawfully prevents him from conducting the tribe's business as chairman.

Yankton's opponents last week filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing in part that the federal court has no jurisdiction in a sovereign tribal matter.

The recall petition seeking Yankton's ouster was circulated after earlier attempts to remove him by votes, first by an elders meeting and later at an "emergency general assembly," were deemed to violate the tribe's constitution.

After the elders vote, McDonald was named chairman, but he later conferred with Yankton and agreed that the constitution required a recall petition and vote by the membership.

The petition was circulated and presented to the Spirit Lake Election Board, which validated sufficient signatures to force a recall meeting, which Tribal Vice Chairman Joel Red Fox called on July 1. At that meeting, members recalled Yankton and elected McDonald to replace him.

Appeals court connection

Yankton, however, appealed to the Election Board and presented more names that he said should have been struck from the recall petition, which required signers to be members of the tribe and living on the reservation. More names were removed, leaving a total short of what was required, and Yankton used that result to persuade a Tribal Court judge to invalidate the petition and reinstate him as chairman.

When McDonald and others appealed to the Aberdeen court, Yankton argued that the tribe had left the appeals court last year, so it lacked jurisdiction. But in its order Friday, the appeals court found that Spirit Lake's withdrawal was not done according to Spirit Lake law, as it was not ratified at a general assembly.

"Accordingly ... the NPICA is the designated appellate court of the Spirit Lake Tribe and Yankton's motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction is denied."

The appeals court held further that an order issued by another tribal judge, ruling the recall petition was invalid and Yankton should be reinstated, "was error" because it exceeded the tribal court's constitutional authority to involve itself in a recall process.

Yankton and his opponents have agreed on one thing: While the leadership controversy continues, the tribe is handicapped in responding to pressing issues, including the ongoing effort to rebuild its child protection services.

Darren Walking Eagle, who had been chief administrative officer of the tribe under Yankton until he was released this summer -- "for lack of funds," he said -- faulted the continuing uncertainty for hurting the tribal government's ability to operate programs, secure grants and otherwise serve the people of Spirit Lake.

Still work to do

Longie said his Facebook page "lit up (Friday) night with people thanking me. They're very happy" that the legal fight, at least, appears to be over.

"And now that this is over, I think we're going to be able to move forward," he said. "We still have a lot of work to do."

The Fort Totten District took one action recently aimed at bolstering Spirit Lake's effort to address problems of sexual abuse, including the sexual abuse of children. A display case that held photographs of more than two dozen registered sex offenders living on the reservation had been removed from the tribal government building last year by Yankton. District representatives declared last week that it should be returned to the tribe's central gathering place.

"I think those photo displays need to go up in all our 'rec' centers and administrative buildings," McDonald said Saturday. "We need to know who those people are."

One looming task will be reconciliation.

"The anger and resentment created by this are going to go on for a long time," Longie said.

"It's got to come from the people themselves," McDonald said. "We as officials can use some of our culture, our ceremonies and training to help lead the way. But we've been working in little silos, and we need to tear those down and work together. We have a lot of issues -- housing and overcrowding, public safety, employment."