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Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published April 14 2013

Spirit Lake ousts tribal chairman

GRAND FORKS - Participants in a hastily called general assembly meeting voted overwhelmingly today to oust Roger Yankton Sr. as chairman of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, according to tribal members in attendance.

The vote was 114-3.

The assembly then chose Leander (Russ) McDonald, an administrator at the tribal college, to replace Yankton. McDonald lost to Yankton in the 2011 election for chairman.

Tribal offices were closed for the weekend, and Yankton did not answer calls to his cellphone. He apparently did not participate in the meeting.

Myra Pearson, who led the tribe from 1997 to 1999 and again from 2005 to 2011, did not participate in the meeting but received reports from people who were there. She said the assembly was within its rights to remove Yankton.

“If you have a good, strong council that listens to the people, you wouldn’t have to come to this,” Pearson said.

“This is the people’s meeting,” she said. “I’m surprised they waited this long to call one. The chairman is supposed to have a monthly meeting to listen to the people, and they have been asking and asking.”

She said Yankton and the Tribal Council “had meetings over the weekend, and they were closed meetings, and they can’t do that.”

McDonald “is educated, has good contacts in Washington, and he listens” to the people, she said.

“I cried when I heard this. If there’s any hope left for this tribe, I’d put it on Russ’ shoulders.”

Darren Walking Eagle, the tribe’s chief administrative officer, said he did not attend the meeting and was unaware of what took place. He said he was not sure what happens next, though he said the usual manner of replacing a chairman is for members of the tribe to circulate a petition for a new vote.

A petition drive to remove Yankton in early 2012 failed. It was dismissed after a special tribal court judge ruled the petitions fell short of the required number of eligible enrolled members.

The failure of Yankton to convene monthly general assemblies, as required by the tribe’s constitution, appeared to be a key factor in the revolt against his leadership.

Sunday’s general assembly vote followed a flurry of hastily called meetings last week reflecting divisions, anger and impatience regarding Yankton’s leadership, including his handling of tribal finances and the continuing controversy over child protection on the reservation.

About 10 days ago, Yankton suspended Clarice Brownshield from the Tribal Council. Brownshield countered by convening a meeting in Fort Totten on Wednesday at which she accused Yankton of corruption. She distributed copies of tribal records she said showed unauthorized payments and the rehiring of a Yankton relative who had been fired for absenteeism.

Brownshield said she had provided information and documents to the FBI.

Yankton and the rest of the council were in Watertown, S.D., on tribal business most of last week and unavailable for comment, a spokeswoman said. Messages left on the chairman’s cellphone were not returned.

On Thursday, about 30 elders of the tribe gathered at the Spirit Lake Casino and adopted a resolution calling for dismissal of the Tribal Council. They cited inadequate progress on reform of the tribe’s social services programs, a nagging lack of jobs, the use of intimidation and rewards by tribal leaders to maintain their authority, and the leaders’ failure to honor the tribal constitution’s call for a monthly general assembly meeting. Yankton again did not respond to calls for comment.

The elders and other tribe members met again on Friday and called for Sunday’s general assembly. Yankton appeared briefly at the Friday meeting and tried to assure members that his administration would investigate the problems that members had identified, but his response failed to satisfy most of those present, according to members who were there.