« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published July 01 2013

Spirit Lake Sioux tribe votes Yankton out, McDonald in as chairman

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. – Wearing a full traditional headdress and vowing to “represent myself and the Spirit Lake Tribe with dignity and respect,” Leander “Russ” McDonald was sworn in Monday as new chairman of the tribe as about 150 supporters cheered and applauded.

McDonald, vice president for academic affairs at Candeska Cikana Community College here, was elected chairman immediately after tribe members voted by a large margin to remove Chairman Roger Yankton Sr. in an assembly at Four Winds School, a gathering prompted by a recall petition.

Yankton indicated he intends to challenge the validity of the petition and tribal election officials’ decision to accept it.

The vote was 284-145 to recall the controversial Yankton, who has presided over a tumultuous period on the Spirit Lake Reservation, including allegations of abuse of power, corruption, intimidation and failure to pull the tribe out of a crisis in child protection.

Yankton later huddled with members of his family and other advisers in what has been his office in the tribal administration building. While he made no effort to interfere with McDonald’s swearing in, he said he believes he remains chairman of the tribe.

“I have to believe that because I’ve filed a process, and our sitting government failed to take care of that,” he said. “These are things I have to question.”

Yankton laughed off suggestions that he and his allies were engaging in a sit-in or occupation of the chairman’s office.

He said he regretted that some tribal members had made general allegations about his administration but did not provide specifics. As to a lack of progress on some issues, he said “it takes longer than 24 months to correct all the deficiencies” that had developed over the past several administrations.

Chairman again

McDonald, who lost to Yankton in the 2011 election for chairman, was briefly installed as chairman earlier this year by elders who claimed the right to oust a chairman of the council at a special general assembly. He later agreed with Yankton, however, that tribal law required a petition and recall assembly.

He was elected Monday over two other candidates – former Tribal Chairman Phillip “Skip” Longie Sr. and Robert Thompson Jr., who ran unsuccessfully earlier this year for a seat on the Tribal Council from the St. Michael district.

As a group of tribe members sang celebratory songs and beat on drums, tribe members formed long lines in the Four Winds School gymnasium to take turns congratulating the new chairman with hugs and handshakes.

“The first thing about today is the people had their voice,” McDonald said after the vote and before he left for tribal headquarters, known as the Blue Building, for his swearing in.

“What the people said here today is that we need to follow our laws,” he said. “We need to make changes, but you don’t change laws on your own to fit what you’re doing.”

McDonald, who said he will resign his position at the tribal college, was sworn in by Spirit Lake’s new chief tribal judge, El Marie Conklin. In the special oath she administered, he swore to lead the tribe in a way that leads to “conservation of tribal lands, resources and sovereignty” and to act with “pride in our Dakota culture, values, language and overall way of life.”

After taking the oath, he addressed about 150 tribe members who witnessed the transition, telling them that he wants to build unity and leave old divisions behind, and urging them to focus their energies not on rumors but on plans to address the tribe’s challenges.

“Planning is not new to us,” he said, referring to the Dakota people. “Vision is not new to us.” It is a Dakota axiom, he said, “that when you do something, you do it for seven generations.”

McDonald also showed a humorous side as he honored the two other men who were nominated.

“I’m glad you voted for me,” he told the roomful of members. As chairman, “I hear you get an iPhone … whatever that is.”

Police presence

Fifteen Bureau of Indian Affairs officers were in place at Four Winds School to provide security as members of the Spirit Lake Nation gathered to decide Yankton’s fate.

The heavy federal police presence at the school, which was not in session Monday, included officers brought in from other BIA jurisdictions. It reflected concerns on both sides that the meeting could become contentious.

Some meeting participants left right after casting a vote in the recall, not waiting to hear the result or help choose a new chairman.

“I’m just tired of us being on the news all the time,” said Alfrieda Dunn, 56, explaining why she voted to remove Yankton. She had to leave, she said, because she was caring for seven grandchildren.

Of the child protection issue that has drawn intense scrutiny, she said, “He (Yankton) didn’t handle that well at all. … I don’t care who is elected as long as he is out.”

The assembly was called by Vice Chairman Joel Redfox following certification of the recall petition, which the tribal election board determined contained 547 valid signatures – just seven more than required by tribal law.

The Tribal Council, headed by Yankton, voted on Thursday to bar reporters from the meeting. “We’ve been dragged through the mud the past few days,” said Nancy Greene-Robertson, the tribal secretary-treasurer and a member of the council.

“This is a chance for everyone to express their views,” she said. “And it’s a chance for the chairman to share his views.”

Elder Erich Longie, an educator who operates a consulting company on the reservation and took the lead in circulating the recall petition, started the meeting by detailing what he believes have been failings in Yankton’s leadership, according to members who participated.

Yankton responded by renewing his objections to the petition, but members interrupted him by clapping in unison and shouting, “Vote! Vote!”

Members formed long lines stretching around the school gym to one-by-one affirm their enrolled status with the tribe and cast their secret ballot, which took more than two hours. The second round of voting, to elect a new chairman, took significantly less time. An exact vote count was not made available, but several members said McDonald won handily over the other two candidates.

According to some Yankton opponents, a delegation of tribal members met last week in Bismarck with the state commissioner of Indian Affairs to outline their concerns about the chairman. Bernice Juarez, one of the petition drive leaders, said that could provide dissidents with another option if the recall effort had failed.