Dueling Governments

As the debate continued on, so to would the day to day operations and governance of the Tribe. On June 7, 1997 an election was scheduled to take place to elect the tribal leadership. One week earlier, Phil Tarbell released a letter to the community titled simply, Setting the Record Straight. In it, he outlined several issues he felt were misinterpreted which resulted in leaving lingering doubts in the community regarding his conduct. Specifically, he made note of the perception in the community that the Constitutional Government was the BIA’s government:

You have heard the Constitutional Government elected on June1, 1996 referred to as either the ‘BIA Government’ or the ‘Washington Redskins’. After the confusing events of June 1996, the signing authority changed from those elected June 1, 1996 to those elected June 29, 1996. It must be made clear here that those who swore to uphold the Tribal Constitution never asked the BIA to intervene on their behalf.227

Tarbell went on to make a claim of his own:

When we opted to step aside and maintain responsibility for all our programs in July, 1996, we did not believe that this would string out this long. We have maintained the programs while the so-called peoples government has diverted Tribal revenues we have used for our Tribal share to 3 secret bank accounts—1 in Massena and 2 in Canada, where they divert funds for ‘their pet’ projects.228

The factionalism began to wear on at least one of the new council members. On September 10, 1997 Barbara Lazore notified the People’s Government ’s lawyer, Bradley Waterman, that she no longer wanted her name cited in the continuing legal dispute:

Since my name appears on all the appeals, I feel it was only fair that I should have received personal copies of any documents that were filed on my behalf. To this date, you have neglected to send me copies of these documents. Therefore, Brad, at this time I must inform you, I do not want you to use my name on any more documents concerning the leadership issue. The continuation of this fight is undermining the genuine efforts of the elected leaders that are trying to form a Coalition Government.229

The People’s Government gained even more momentum the following year when Alma Ransom, Paul Thompson, and John Bigtree, Jr. ran for seats on the Constitutional Government…and won.

On June 16, 1998, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Election Board announced that they had found errors in the election:

The SRMT Election Board has found a discrepancy between the number of registered voters and the number of ballots in the ballot boxes. The Election Board has therefore declared null and void the June 6, 1998 Tribal Elections, due to the discrepancy found.230

Tribal Court Judge Frank Horn of Kahnawà:ke later ruled that there was no basis for the election commissioners to nullify the vote, and so successful candidates Ransom, Thompson, and Bigtree were sworn in the next day, first by Judge Horn, whose validity as a judge they rejected due to the fact that he was not elected and wasn’t a member of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, and next by their comrade Hilda Smoke, who swore them in in the Mohawk language.231

Adding to the growing discontent of the supporters of the constitution, a letter was sent to the Tribal Court Administrator ordering her to stop facilitating Tribal Court proceedings which were perceived to be under direction and authority of the constitution. The Tribal Council sent a letter to Danielle Lazore on July 16, 1998 and ordered the following:

You may have received a resolution dated a few months back giving you authority to continue the implementation of the tribal courts. You must also remember, that council has since been replaced by the People’s Government Chiefs and they drastically disapprove of any form of government under the auspices of the Constitutional Government. They also consider Christine Deom’s appointment as void and does not have any authority to hold and administer any court proceedings on the Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation. By this letter, you are to cease any further action regarding the implementation of any further tribal court system without specific approval by this Council. Any deviation from this order will be considered a breach of the personnel policy and your dismissal will be immediate.232

On July 2, 1998, Tribal Council Resolution 98-110 was passed by the Tribal Council’s new majority. This essentially abolished the notion of the constitution and affirmed the Three Chief System as the government of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, but did little to change the BIA’s recognition of the Constitutional Government. On July 26, acting BIA Eastern Area Director Franklin Keel wrote to Ms. Rosalie Jacobs to confirm this:

This office accepts the June 7 and July 12, 1996 decisions of the Mohawk Tribal Court in the matters regarding the status of the tribal constitution and the identity of recognized tribal leaders. Accordingly, we recognize that, (1) the tribal constitution originally adopted in June 1995 has neither been repealed nor repudiated, and (2) those individuals elected to leadership positions in the tribal election held on June 1, 1996, are entitled to recognition as St. Regis Mohawk leaders.234

On Friday, July 31, Chief Executive Officer Edward Smoke vetoed the resolution, which had been signed by the three new legislators but opposed by incumbents Barbara Lazore and Bryan Garrow.

Alma Ransom told The Watertown Daily Times that the resolution was a reflection of the many defeats the tribal constitution had suffered in referendums and elections. “After all these resolutions it’s now coming from within,” she said. “We don’t want to be dictated to by this piece of paper.” She estimated that the reservation opposed the constitution 24 to 1. “After all this, the BIA is still holding on to this,” she said. “The animal has taken over.”235

It was becoming evident that the problems associated with the governmental split was spilling into financial areas as the two sides remained steadfast in managing separate tribal accounts. In a September 15 letter addressed to the leaders of the People’s Government, the Constitutional Government’s demanded that the Tribe’s Public Finance Act must be adhered to:

Since your election into the Constitutional Government, you have continued to collect fees from the business people. We strongly feel it is now necessary to ask you to comply with the Tribe’s Public Finance Act that was adopted on July 9, 1995 as the keeping of separate accounts puts a further strain on the limited funds that the Tribe has to work with.236

The People’s Government responded swiftly with a response letter on the following day. They were quick to point out that even though they (the Constitutional Government) had BIA recognition, they did not have the approval of the community:

We are the duly elected chiefs of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe. It is our responsibility to secure and protect Tribal funds. We would be remiss, legally and otherwise, if we relinquish control of Tribal funds in favor of individuals, such as yourselves, who have not legitimate right or duty to direct the investment and/or expenditures of such funds...You and the BIA have chosen to ignore the will of the people and continue this charade as BIA representatives. We will not do so.237

227  Philip Tarbell Letter to Community, June 1, 1997, Index # TC—V1—18.
228  Ibid.
229  Barbara Lazore Letter to Bradley Waterman, September 10, 1997, Index # TC—V1—21.
230  SRMT Press Release, June 16, 1998, Index # TC—V1—17.
231  “Mohawk Chiefs Sworn In as Debate Over Court System Continues,” The Watertown Daily Times, July 2, 1998.
232  SRMT Letter to Danielle Lazore, July 16, 1998, Index # TC—V1—1.
233  TCR 98-110, Onkwaianerenshera, July 21, 1998.  Index # TC—VI—16.
234  USDOI/BIA Franklin Keel to Rosalie Jacobs, July 26, 1998.  Index # TC—VI—22.
235  “Resolution To Dissolve Is Vetoed By Smoke,” The Watertown Daily Times, August 5, 1998.
236  SRMT Letter to Tribal Council, September 15, 1998, Index # TC—V1—10.
237  SRMT Letter to Constitutional Government, September 16, 1998, Index # TC—V1—6.

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