Making a Federal Case of It

Although they rejected the right of the federal government to determine who should govern the Tribe, the leaders of the People’s Government had decided to take their case to federal court, filing papers around the time of the June 1998 election. In October of that year, their attorney, Bradley Waterman, told The Daily Courier-Observer, “This is not a battle of leaders, but the constitution versus the three chief system.”238

At the heart of their suit was the BIA’s refusal to recognize the 1996 referendum in which the majority of voters rejected the validity of the constitution:

“The BIA should have accepted the referendum vote. But, they didn’t do anything,” he said. “Now we’re in court. It all boils down to the fact the BIA has no right to interfere the way it is doing - to ignore a valid tribal forum in the referendum.

“It is so bitterly disappointing to see a body of my government ignores the sovereignty of the tribal government. That is a violation of the federal policy which says Indian bodies govern themselves,” Waterman said.239

Former Chief and Tribal Council Chairman Phil Tarbell wrote to the US District Court to offer his opinion:

“I personally resent any non-member coming in and distorting the facts; then second-guessing our exercise in self-governance on those distorted facts,” he wrote.

“The facts uphold the existence of the constitution,” Tarbell said Tuesday. “The constitution passed by a margin of 17 votes! He distorted the chronology of events.”

He said Ransom, Smoke, and Thompson want to be recognized under the People’s Government by the Department of the Interior, even though they are also sworn in as members of the Legislative Government.

“They don’t want to comply with the restrictions and duties as legislators. They want to practice as the three chiefs.” Tarbell said. “They have to take one of those hats off and abide by one oath. I don’t know how they can serve two masters.”240

The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Interior Board of Indian Appeals (IBIA) were named as the defendants in the case, which was heard by United States District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. She would not issue her decision on the case until September of 1999. Until that occurred, the Tribal Council would busy itself with the grand opening of it’s new casino in April of 1999 and the annual election held on June 5. This election was not without another surprise for the followers of the constitutional debate.

Erma White-Moore, a supporter of the constitution, narrowly defeated the People’s Government candidate Hilda Smoke by a vote of 219 to 213. Smoke appealed the election results on the grounds that White-Moore didn’t meet the requirements for candidates as set out in Tribal Council Act 96-14, which states, “Any candidate for elected Tribal Legislative Council must reside on the U.S. portion of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation or live south of the U.S./Canada border and reside within a designated land claims area for more than one year.”241

A deed was produced that showed White-Moore owned a home at 32 Desmond Street in North Lawrence, New York, and neighbors confirmed that she had lived there for 30 years. This was enough for the election board, who struck down her victory and declared Smoke the new leader. They also reversed the election of Carrie Garrow and Patrick Solomon to the positions of Chief Judge and Associate Judge.242

Chief Executive Officer Edward Smoke rejected the board’s decision on the grounds that they had certified the eligibility of the candidates prior to the election. On Thursday, July 1, he swore in Carrie Garrow as Chief Judge. She then swore in Patrick Solomon as Associate Judge. Both White-Moore and Smoke were also sworn in that day, as reported by The Watertown Daily Times the following day under the headline “Two Tribal Legislators Sworn in to Same Post.”

It was déjà vu all over again Thursday at the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s community building.

At 10 a.m., Hilda E. Smoke was sworn into office as a tribal legislator. At 2 p.m., Erma White-Moore took the same oath of office.

“This is a happy day,” Ms. White-Moore said. “I don’t want to discuss any disputes.”

Mrs. Smoke and Ms. White-Moore both claim they won the June 6 tribal election for the pivotal seat on the five-member tribal council.

Ms. White-Moore received more votes. But Mrs. Smoke’s supporters claim that Ms. White-Moore is not eligible to hold office because she does not live on the reservation or in the land-claim areas.

“My family gives me strength,” Mrs. Smoke said. “And the community gives me strength. And I will do my best to represent the community.”

The next Tribal Council meeting is set for Tuesday, which could be interesting because both the Constitutional Government, which is supported by Ms. White-Moore, and the People’s Government, which is supported by Mrs. Smoke, claim to have a quorum to have a meeting.243

That same month, it was reported that former Tribal Council Chief John S. Loran admitted in U.S. District Court that he was guilty of defrauding the Internal Revenue Service by not declaring “tens of thousands” of dollars in bribe money from liquor smugglers operating on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation. On September 30 of the previous year, former Tribal Chief L. David Jacobs pled guilty to racketeering and bribery charges for his role in the smuggling operation. The Watertown Daily Times mentioned the tribal constitution in their coverage of Loran’s guilty plea:

Mr. Loran was one of the three tribal chiefs who headed the reservation, along with Chiefs L. David Jacobs and Norman J. Tarbell, before members voted to start a constitutional government system in 1995.

Mr. Tarbell admitted in May to stealing government equipment and giving it to reservation businessmen, including smugglers. Mr. Jacobs admitted last October to helping smugglers for a cut of the profits.

“All three pleaded guilty,” Mr. Maroney said of the former chiefs. “That shows, I think, the extent to which the leadership on the U.S. side was corrupted” before the vote adopting a constitution.244

Although corruption can occur in any form of government, even those with constitutions and a separation of powers, the inherent weakness of the Three Chief System seemed to be confirmed by the arrests of three of the last four men elected under that system. However, this did not prevent it from returning in full force at the hands of the federal court.

238  “Three Chief System Could Come Back After Case Is Tried,” The Daily Courier-Observer, October 21, 1998.
239  Ibid.
240  Ibid.
241  SRMT Tribal Council Act 96-14, Act Relating to Elections and Voting Regulations, April 10, 1996.  Index # CG—II—3.
242  “Hilda Smoke’s Loss Reversed: Board Nullifies Election,” The Daily Courier-Observer, June ?, 1999.
243  “Two Tribal Leaders Sworn in to Same Post,” The Watertown Daily Times, July 2, 1999.
244  “Former Mohawk Chief Guilty of Defrauding IRS,” The Watertown Daily Times, July 24, 1999.

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