Return of the Three Chiefs

The day after the decision came down, The Daily Courier-Observer proclaimed victory for the People’s Government with its cover story headline: “Three-Chief System Triumphs.”

“How about that,” Chief Paul Thompson said. “It’s been a long time coming.”250

Chief Alma Ransom’s comments echoed those of Thompson:

“It was the truth, that’s all,” Ransom said. “It’s been very, very difficult. We operated and existed under very difficult situations for the past four years, but we did it for the people.”

Thompson said, “We knew that we did the right thing by the people. The problem was the BIA kind of stuck their nose in and tried to force a constitutional government on us like they have our brothers and sisters in the west.”251

Although Kollar-Kotelly did not specifically mandate the Bureau of Indian Affairs to recognize the Three Chief System of government, Ransom, Thompson and Smoke had the ball and were running with it. The newspapers covering the story seemed to accept their assessment of the decision uncritically, as evidenced by the coverage of The Daily Courier-Observer:

Ed Smoke, Barbara Lazore, Bryan Garrow and Erma White-Moore no longer hold legal authority over the tribe. Other administrators and the court system appointed by the constitutional government are also out.

Ransom explained the Mohawk Tribal Police and traffic court were created by the People’s Government before the constitutional government stepped in, but all of the forms of court have never been taken before the tribe.

But, Thompson and Ransom agreed there are many decisions to be made and that will take time.

“That’s something that we will have to talk about in the next few days,” Thompson said. “We need to call in our directors and talk to them and then we’ll start putting people in place.”

The three chiefs’ term of office technically expired last June with the People’s Government, but Thompson said they passed a resolution extending their terms so as not to conflict with the elections held by the constitutional government.

Ransom added, “And don’t forget, we only had served three months before the interruption by the constitutional government. We haven’t actually served our full terms.”252

The next day both factions held press conferences. In addition to the press, numerous community members and tribal employees were present, as reported by The Watertown Daily Times in their article titled, “Court Ruling Hasn’t Solved Problems Between Factions of Mohawks”:

Edward D. Smoke said he didn’t think violence would accompany the change in St. Regis Mohawk leadership prompted by a court ruling Wednesday that eliminated what had been the tribe’s governing body.

Minutes after saying that, Mr. Smoke, who was the tribe’s chief executive officer before the court ruling, was in a shouting match that nearly escalated into violence.

“Why don’t you get out before we throw you out,” John Bigtree, Jr., a sub-chief in the traditional government, said at a press conference organized by the deposed Constitutional Government.

“I’d like to see you try it, junior,” Mr. Smoke replied, his voice rising with anger.

No punches were thrown during the tense exchange, held under the watchful eyes of members of the tribal police department. But the verbal confrontation illustrated the point that a federal court decision against the Constitutional Government has not solved any problems that exist among the various factions of the tribe.253

The newspaper accepted uncritically the contention of the People’s Government that the federal court decision had abolished the Constitutional Government…something that would probably not be official until the Bureau of Indian Affair formally recognized that fact.

Angus N. McDonald, a former tribal administrator, welcomed the end of the Constitutional Government.

“They will just disappear,” he said. “The only reason it existed was because it was supported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And the judge upheld our position that the bureau had overstepped its bounds.”254

Edward Smoke disputed the People’s Government claim that they were now the government of the tribe, stressing the fact that their terms of office had expired. He thought an election should be called in three weeks. The People’s Government had no intention of doing so and were content to wait until the following June.

“The community has to come first,” Mr. Smoke said. “The worst thing that can happen is that people are fired for political reasons.”

But to the victor go the spoils, and the People’s Government made it clear there will be changes.

“There will be no layoffs, but there may be replacements,” Mr. Bigtree said. “You were either with us, or you were against us. I think there are a lot of people who don’t want to work for us anymore.”255

The article went on to report that tribal employees asked if they would have a paycheck in two weeks. Bigtree spoke up from the back of the room and said they would be signed, but only by the Tribe’s rightful leaders.

Two days later, the press reported that former Tribal Council Chairman Philip Tarbell had written to the federal Department of the Interior asking the agency to appeal the decision that returned the Three Chief System back to power:

“There are several serious issues that this decision raises and leaves many unanswered questions for our community,” Philip H. Tarbell said in his letter: “The first issue and perhaps the most important is the right to self government. Our Tribal decision-making process followed certain long-standing procedures for two hundred years and all of those procedures were followed on the Constitution adoption process.”256

Following the community meeting held the following Saturday, which was characterized by a calmer decorum than the press conferences, attorney Brad Waterman told The Daily Courier-Observer that he thought the Department of the Interior was unlikely to appeal based on the harshness of the decision:

“I don’t recall ever seeing anything like this,” he said. “We were wondering what was taking so long. What (Kollar-Kotelly) was obviously crafting was a very thorough and critical decision.

“If I were the government, I wouldn’t even be thinking of an appeal,” he added.257

Chief Hilda Smoke conceded that the community meeting wasn’t exactly a love-in for the Three Chief System, in spite of dissatisfaction with the constitution:

“Nobody liked the constitution, but there’s a lot of criticism for the three chiefs,” she said. “It’s got to do with they have too much power, because only two have to vote, and it carries. So, it’s kind of too much.

“We’re going to form a committee and take it to the people and we’re going to include our elders and everyone,” she explained. “There were lots of volunteers for that.”258

Within weeks, however, it became evident that the veiled threats about “replacements” at the government were still on the agenda. Richard Terrance and Harry Benedict were appointed and sworn in as sub-chiefs and Tribal Clerk Carol Herne was pressured to resign, as reported by The Watertown Daily Times on October 21, 1999:

The People’s Government has stopped paying St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Clerk Carol T. Herne and is trying to remove her from office.

“They took control of the money, and they don’t believe in the rules,” Ms. Herne said. “They are trying to scare me out of office, but I don’t scare easily.”

Ms. Herne said at least two people have been fired since the People’s Government took over running the tribe earlier this month.

“There are a lot of people who are afraid they will be out of a job,” she said.

Ms. Herne, who has been tribal clerk for 18 years, is a supporter of the Constitutional Government. That government was recognized as the ruling entity by the Bureau of Indian Affairs after a constitution was approved by the tribe in 1995...

…Ms. Herne has supported the constitution, although she was also elected under the three-chief system. Both the three-chief system and the constitution provide for the position of tribal clerk to keep records such as tribal membership and deeds.

“I took office under the constitutional government,” she said. “I swore my allegiance to them. I am not going to change now.”259

On November 24, Assistant US Attorney Lisa Barsoomian, acting on behalf of the BIA, filed a notice of appeal in the Federal Appeals Court of the District of Columbia Circuit Court, giving hope to the supporters of the Constitutional Government. Barbara Lazore, one of two legislators who refused to leave the office after Ransom, Smoke, and Thompson took power, told the local press, “We still believe in the constitutional government. So, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but anything gives us hope.”

Phil Tarbell said that the constitutional government was still at work, in spite of being forced out of the tribal government building:

“You don’t have to have an office to be in office,” he said. “An office is something you are elected to. They’re still working on affairs of state. They’re still putting their time in.”260

He was optimistic that his side would ultimately prevail:

“I’m confident that when reasonable people look at the facts of the case without emotion and without rhetoric and without bull—, the facts will come to light,” Tarbell added.

“I’m confident that the truth of the matter - that the constitutional government is legal will prevail. I think the BIA believes it and that’s why they will appeal,” he said.261

Brad Waterman continued to maintain his belief that there was no basis for an appeal:

“Both sides agreed to the facts of the case,” he said. “The only question was a matter of law. The only thing that is unique about this decision was the harshness of the language that was used to describe the government’s actions. And that’s not a reason to appeal, it’s a reason to hide.”262

Another controversy added fuel to the fire of the Constitutional Government. When St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police Chief Wesley N. Benedict was quoted in a national magazine story about the smuggling of human beings through Ahkwesáhsne, he was promptly suspended by the police commission. Edward Smoke questioned who was really behind the suspension:

“I’m concerned that if the police can’t even talk about the issue of alien smuggling, then how seriously are they going to take the issue of enforcing the law?” Mr. Smoke said.

He said he read the article and did not find anything he thought was out of line.

“He talked in general terms,” Mr. Smoke said. “He didn’t single out any individuals or families. There are certain limitations the police have to follow when talking to the media, but I didn’t see a problem with that article.”

Although the tribe’s police commission is responsible for making decisions regarding the department, Mr. Smoke said he has heard rumors that the suspension was ordered by the People’s Government, which is now running the tribe…

…Mr. Smoke said the decision to suspend the police chief highlighted the kinds of problems that existed before the constitution was put into place, namely that the three chiefs who governed the tribe had too much power.263

The following week, Kevin Gover, Assistant Interior Secretary of Indian Affairs, told the press that the Bureau of Indian Affairs would continue to recognize the Constitutional Government and not the People’s Government:

“It’s still under discussion within the department,” Mr. Gover told reporters in a one-hour session on Indian policy. “I think it’s fair to say that until we have either filed an appeal, or the time has run and we’re not permitted to file an appeal, that we won’t have made a final decision on the point at which we’ll implement the court’s decision.”264

The dispute entered the new millennium when Tarbell led a contingent of constitution supporters to Washington on January 3, 2000 to hand deliver a document outlining their position on why the federal judge was wrong to recognize the People’s Government as the rightful leaders of the reservation. As The Watertown Daily Times observed,

Mr. Tarbell’s effort is somewhat mysterious because he was not a party to the case and the appeals court has not been given him permission to intervene. In addition, legal rules may block from consideration much of the background material he submitted.

But the willingness of BIA officials to meet with this group instead of with the traditional three chiefs who won the case—and the friendly reception Mr. Tarbell said he and the others received—reflect the political maneuvering that continues while the issue shakes out in court. And it shows that chiefs Alma Ransom, Paul O. Thompson, and Hilda E. Smoke have a long way to go before they can claim victory.265

250  “Three-Chief System Triumphs,” The Daily-Courier Observer, October 1, 1999.
251  Ibid.
252  Ibid.
253  “Court Ruling Hasn’t Solved Problems Between Factions of Mohawks,” The Watertown Daily Times, October 2, 1999.
254  Ibid.
255  Ibid.
256  “Ex-Mohawk Chief Requests Ruling Appeal,”  The Watertown Daily Times, October 4, 1999.
257  “Three-Chief System Meeting Productive Without Threats,” The Daily Courier-Observer, October 5, 1999.
258  Ibid.
259  “Tribal Clerk Pressured To Resign,”  The Watertown Daily Times, October 21, 1999.
260  “Notice Of Appeal Filed By BIA,” The Daily Courier-Observer, December 2, 1999.
261  Ibid.
262  “BIA Filing Gives Hope to Faction,” The Watertown Daily Times, December 2, 1999.
263  “Mohawks’ Police Chief Suspended,”  The Watertown Daily Times, December 3, 1999.
264  “BIA Still Recognizing Constitutional Leaders,”  The Watertown Daily Times, December 9, 1999.
265  “Former Chief Appeals Ruling on Mohawks,”  The Watertown Daily Times, January 6, 2000.

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