Timbisha Shoshone Tribe disenrollment fight appears to be over

Young members of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe are seen in Furnace Creek within Death Valley National Park sometime in the 1930s. Photo by Burton Frasher, Sr. Neg. No. 4759, Death Valley National Park Archives

A disenrollment and leadership dispute within the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe of California appears to be over after a federal appeals court dismissed a challenge from a losing faction.

The faction led by Joseph Kennedy removed 74 people from the rolls after coming to power in 2006. One of those people was George Gholson, who organized a general council meeting to put a halt to the effort.

Gholson's efforts succeeded in the removal of Kennedy from office and he eventually won election as chairman. Kennedy protested. but the Bureau of Indian Affairs sided with the Gholson faction, a move that led to litigation in federal court.

As the case was proceeding, the tribe adopted changes to the constitution to ensure that the 74 people who were threatened with removal could remain on the rolls. The Kennedy faction protested again, arguing that the BIA allowed non-members to vote in the Secretarial election.


Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Oral arguments in Timbisha Shoshone Tribe v. US Department of the Interior, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, said the Kennedy faction's complaints didn't matter. Even if the disputed members hadn't participated, the new constitution would have been approved, a three-judge panel stated on Friday.

"In certifying the election results, the Bureau observed that even if all the votes of members that Kennedy Group disputed as qualifying for membership were ignored, the yes votes would have still won a majority," Judge J. Clifford Wallace wrote in the unanimous decision.

"Under the new constitution’s membership framework, there is no dispute that the 74 disenrolled individuals qualify for tribal membership," Wallace wrote in another part of the decision. "Thus, were we to remand for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reconsider its decision, there would be no possibility whatsoever that the agency would change its reasoning as to the disenrolled individuals because those people clearly qualify for tribal membership under the new constitution."


George Gholson. Photo from Facebook

Gholson remains the BIA-recognized chairman of the tribe and has served as the public face of a proposed casino in Ridgecrest. The disenrollment dispute has been brought up by opponents of the project but the ruling appears to have settled any doubts about his legitimacy.

Kennedy, who still considers himself to be chairman, isn't giving up. He's been working with the non-profit Indian Law Resource Center on the issue.

“This fight is not over," Kennedy said in a press release. "We will continue to seek justice for the Timbisha as well as for all Western Shoshone peoples, and indigenous peoples across the country.”

Get the Story:
New Constitution Ends Tribe's Fight With U.S. (Courthouse News Service 5/27)
Revised MSA on agenda tonight (The Ridgecrest Daily Independent 6/1)

9th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Timbisha Shoshone Tribe v. US Department of the Interior (May 27, 2016)

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