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Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published April 16 2013

Yankton still Spirit Lake chairman

GRAND FORKS – Roger Yankton Sr. remains chairman of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, says Leander “Russ” McDonald, the man elected to replace him at an emergency general assembly on Sunday.

McDonald, sworn in as tribal chairman at a traditional ceremony Monday, said he met later with Yankton and the two agreed the tribal constitution requires a formal petition and recall vote.

“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 Tuesday in a phone interview. “I told him they chose me as their front man.”

Yankton again did not respond to requests for comment.

Yankton “knows the constitution, and so do I,” McDonald 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 my swearing in) and said that according to our tradition this is valid. But we looked at the constitution, Roger and I, and we agreed.”

A petition is circulating, and McDonald, vice president for academics at the tribal college, said that he would serve as chairman if the petition is filed, enough signatures are verified and the people choose him.

He said the petition must be signed by at least 20 percent of the voting population. Erich Longie, leading the petition drive, said earlier that the requirement would be about 540 signatures but he was aiming for 600.

McDonald, who is related to Yankton but ran against him for tribal chairman in 2011, said their conversation Monday in the chairman’s office “was pretty cordial, for the most part.”

He said there had been a “heated” meeting on Monday of people seeking to replace Yankton and other members of the council.

A key complaint by Yankton’s critics is that he has not called general assemblies, required monthly by the tribal constitution, where people could raise issues and ask questions of their leaders.

Other issues include the handling of tribal finances and programs, especially child protection and other social services programs, controversy over which has divided the tribe and brought it much embarrassing negative publicity.

Some of the people seeking changes in tribal leadership “are younger folks, very passionate,” McDonald said. “I said we don’t want anybody to get in trouble. That’s not our way. We’re all Dakotas here, and we need to come together in a positive way.

“I asked everybody to go home. I was going to talk with Roger, and I said whatever he shares with me I would share with them.”

He said he then walked to the council chambers.

“It was full of people,” he said. “I asked, ‘Is Roger here?’ He asked me to come in, and we shook hands, before and after.”

McDonald said he told Yankton that “rumors start and everybody starts making up stuff. That’s what happens when there isn’t transparent government.

“I told him I was basically a messenger from the folks who were dissatisfied. They didn’t know what was going on, and they want to know.

“I told him, ‘I’ve never said anything bad about you, and I’ve always been respectful of you,’ ” McDonald said. “And I haven’t heard him say anything bad about me.

“He believes he’s right, and he’s going to stand by the initiatives he’s put in place.”

McDonald said the ceremony conducted earlier Monday by a former tribal judge and chairman “was new to me. I am a singer at a lot of ceremonies, but I’ve never seen this one before.”

He said he was pleased by people “showing some confidence in my ability to do the job, but I want to do things legally and stand by and respect the constitution.

“Legally, I am not the chairman,” he said, and he won’t be until and unless the constitutional requirements are met.

Unrelated to the recall effort, McDonald was one of four candidates to be the Fort Totten District’s representative on the Tribal Council in Tuesday’s primary election. The top two finishers will face off in two weeks.

McDonald is a disabled Army veteran who said he has been sober “for 19 years, if I make it to July.” He holds three degrees including a Ph.D. from UND, where he also did research on American Indian aging and other rural health issues.

He has testified before state legislative and congressional committees, and he helped develop a detailed strategic plan for the tribe during the administration of former Tribal Chairwoman Myra Pearson.

That plan sought to focus the tribe’s efforts on reducing substance abuse and improving housing, employment, law enforcement and health care, he said.

“We can’t get up and brag,” he said. “That’s against our culture. We stand and say what we want to do, what our vision is. That plan is our vision, and it’s what the people told us they wanted.

“I’m qualified” to be chairman, he said. “But it’s up to the people who they want to put into office.”