FROM THE ARCHIVE

Resolution of Seminole dispute sought in court

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TUESDAY, MAY 28, 2002

The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma plans to return to federal court this week to seek full recognition of its tribal leadership, buoyed by a recent decision affecting a long-running dispute that has drawn national attention.

Although efforts to resolve what has been called a financial and political crisis failed to move forward with the intervention of Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb, the tribe's elected chief expressed confidence in the future. Ken Chambers said his tribe is set for victory.

"We always knew we were in the right," Chambers said in a statement. "But the issue now is to get this government formally recognized and restore the nation's federal funding."

Chambers was referring to a ruling which appears to put a halt to the federal government's aversion to his legitimacy. The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday refused to allow an appeal of a federal court order which threw out a challenge by the Seminole Freedmen, descendants of African slaves whose status in the tribe is the source of the ongoing battle.

In spring of 2000, an overwhelmingly majority of the tribal members approved changes to their constitution that excluded the African descendants. In September 2000, then-Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover refused to recognize all future tribal actions taken "without the participation of the Freedmen."

That included the suspension of former chief Jerry Haney from duties last summer and a defeat in a primary in which he failed to gain enough votes to advance to a run-off. Although Chambers carried the August 2001 election and assumed control of the 10,000-member tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs views this inaction as illegal under Gover's policy set the year prior.

A BIA court agreed and issued two orders earlier this month which left the tribe in near shambles and the Chambers and Haney sides at a stand-off. The decisions were subsequently overturned but not after hundreds of tribal employees and an estimated $3 million, and possibly more, in tribal revenues were lost because the judge shut down Seminole businesses.

McCaleb, hoping to end the turmoil, met with Chambers and Haney in Oklahoma City last week, and suggested a new election be held. Chambers said he would take the suggestion to his council, which has the ultimate decision making authority for the tribe.

For now, Seminole special counsel Marcella Giles hopes to reach a conclusion in court. "There is no valid legal basis to justify what the BIA has been doing these past seven or eight months, none," she said.

BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling said the tribe's federal programs are receiving money. Otherwise, Haney still is the acknowledged leader, she noted.

Relevant Links:
Seminole Nation of Oklahoma - http://www.cowboy.net/native/seminole

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