Challenge in tribe's election puts leadership on hold

GRAND FORKS -- Spirit Lake's Tribal Council gained two new members Tuesday, but tribal officials set aside results in the race for Fort Totten District representative and scheduled a new election.

GRAND FORKS -- Spirit Lake's Tribal Council gained two new members Tuesday, but tribal officials set aside results in the race for Fort Totten District representative and scheduled a new election.

The action apparently will delay the filing of petitions by tribe members seeking the ouster of Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton Sr.

Leander "Russ" McDonald, who was briefly acclaimed tribal chairman last month by members opposed to Yankton, had been declared winner of the Fort Totten District seat on the council after defeating incumbent Clarice Brownshield in the May 7 election.

Brownshield appealed to the election board May 8. But because the board already had certified the results, her appeal was denied. Brownshield then appealed to Spirit Lake Tribal Court, which heard the case last week and ruled Friday that there should be a new district election.

Yankton announced during the swearing-in ceremony Tuesday at the Spirit Lake Casino that the new district election would be held June 11.


McDonald said he wasn't able to attend the Tribal Court hearings last week because he was in New York participating in the opening of an art exhibit based on life and culture at Spirit Lake.

"I haven't received anything in writing," he said prior to Tuesday's ceremony, adding that he planned to attend "and see if they're going to swear me in or not." In any event, he said, "I'm a singer, so if they swear in the other two, I'll sing an honor song for them."

At the ceremony, Nancy Greene-Robertson took over as tribal secretary-treasurer, which includes a seat on the council. She defeated incumbent Barbara Jackson in the May 7 election.

Mardell Merrick-Lewis was sworn in as representative for the St. Michael District.

Yankton and two other members of the council are holdovers.

McDonald said he told Yankton that the Tribal Court decision did not follow the constitution and election laws of the tribe. He also told the chairman that Tribal Judge Shirley Cain, who presided at Brownshield's appeal, should have removed herself from the case due to a conflict of interest, as she is related to Brownshield.

McDonald said he may raise that issue with the court. Failing that, he said he will stand for election again June 11. More than 200 tribe members voted for him, he said, "and I don't think I can let those guys down now."

Brownshield had been suspended from the council by Yankton in April. She convened a district meeting and accused Yankton and the council of corruption, evidence of which she said she had provided to the FBI. The FBI has not commented.


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 in April by a gathering of tribe elders.

Such 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. It also has faced intense scrutiny and criticism for the handling of what's been called a child protection crisis.

Erich Longie, an elder who has led the petition effort to recall Yankton, said he will wait to submit it.

"We want the full council seated before we do anything," he said. "But it will go forward. It's just a matter of time."

As to the possibility of a new election for Fort Totten District representative, "If that's what the court says is the thing to do, that's what we'll do, and let the best person win," Longie said. "What we're hoping for is to have representatives who represent the people of their district rather than being intimidated by the chairman."

Cheryl Good Iron, another of the petition backers, said she was optimistic that Greene-Robertson's election as secretary-treasurer would shed light on tribal finances.

"We need an audit, and she said she was going to request one," Good Iron said. "It will cover everything, and I think that's going to answer a lot of questions.


"She's going to do a great job. I just know it."

She said petition circulators have "more than enough" signatures to pass verification by the election board and force a recall election for tribal chairman.

"It's frustrating, though, that a lot of people complaining about him (Yankton) won't sign the petition because they're afraid of losing their (tribal) jobs," Good Iron said.

Yankton has been unavailable for comment in recent weeks. In a lengthy statement published May 6 on the Devils Lake Daily Journal's website but otherwise not widely distributed, he said the actions of those seeking his ouster as chairman were unconstitutional.

In a meeting with Yankton and in a subsequent interview, McDonald acknowledged that meetings conducted April 14 and 15 had not met constitutional or bylaw requirements.

Petition circulators have said that, if Yankton is recalled, a number of candidates including McDonald may be put forth to replace him. McDonald said Tuesday he is "not sure at this point" whether he would be a candidate.

"I want to watch how things play out," he said.

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