FROM THE ARCHIVE

Judge tries to resolve Seminole Nation dispute

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TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 2002

A federal judge on Monday ordered the Bush administration to recognize the governing body of an Oklahoma tribe even as he expressed doubts that his decision will resolve a long-running political and legal dispute.

In a 45-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said the Bureau of Indian Affairs is acting "contrary to law" by failing to acknowledge the Seminole Nation's general council. Recent elections appear to be constitutionally sound, he wrote.

But Walton nonetheless had harsh words for recent tribal actions that served to "disenfranchise" tribal members of African descent. The Freedmen, as the group is known, were excluded from a critical election, a move which led the Department of Interior to suspend funding for tribal programs.

"Here, the Nation has blatantly disregarded its own constitution and sought to exclude long-time members of its own tribe from seeking office, and participating on the general council," Walton wrote.

The result of the finding was to uphold the BIA's continued recognition of Jerry Haney as the Seminole's last official leader. A July 2001 election that ousted him was "unlawful as the Freedmen are entitled to full participation in the nation," Walton wrote.

Despite the ruling, an attorney for the tribe insisted "nothing has changed." Seminole Nation voters were clear in their overwhelming rejection of Haney, Marcella Giles said.

"The fact that the bureau can still recognize Jerry Haney doesn't change anything," she said.

Giles pointed to language in the decision that indeed paves the way for Haney's removal. The general council can vote to suspend him as principal chief and appoint a new leader, she said.

The council in late 2000 did just that but fell three votes short of a constitutional requirement, Walton noted.

That leaves the door open for Ken Chambers to continue running the tribe. He succeeded Haney but Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb refuses to acknowledge his leadership.

An entirely new election for principal chief and assistant principal chief can also be held, according to the tribe's constitution. Giles said one could occur within 90 days but that it would be "quicker" for Haney to be suspended.

The dispute has resulted in significant turmoil for the 10,000-member tribe. A temporary shutdown of tribal business resulted in a loss of $3 million in revenues, according to the Chambers administration. Supporters of Chambers and Haney also engaged in physical scuffles during the early May standoff.

The Freedmen were made members of the tribe in a post-Civil War treaty. They number about 1,500.

Most lack documentation of Indian blood and are thus ineligible for some federal and tribal services. For two decades, the BIA itself approved elections that excluded the Freedmen, McCaleb admitted in an April 24 letter.

A Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesperson was unavailable for comment yesterday. Haney's New Mexico-based attorney was not answering her phone.

Get the Ruling:
Seminole Nation of Oklahoma v. Gale Norton (9/23)

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

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