BIA Recognition of the Three Chief System
Tarbell wasn’t alone in his attempts to intervene in the case. Edward Smoke, Carol Herne, Erma White-Moore and Barbara Lazore had filed a similar motion soon after he did in October of 1999, shortly after Judge Kollar-Kotelly issued her memorandum opinion. On January 10, 2000, the court denied their motion to intervene as “untimely.” They appealed this decision, but the BIA, seeing the writing on the wall, eventually withdrew their motion to appeal her decision. Before they did that, however, they would convey formal recognition to the “Three Chiefs.”
On February 4, 2000, BIA Field Representative Dean White issued the following letter to Chiefs Alma Ransom, Paul Thompson, Hilda Smoke, and Sub-Chief John Bigtree:
This is in response to your October 8, 1999 letter to the Eastern Regional Director Franklin Keel wherein you provide notification of the persons representing the three chief system of government for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.
Please be informed that, subject to the resolution of any appellate proceedings involving the District Court’s September 20, 1999 decision in Ransom v. Babbitt, Civil Action No. 98-1422 (CKK), D.D.C., the Bureau of Indian Affairs presently recognizes those individuals elected to the Tribe’s three chief system of government on June 29, 1996. Those individuals are:
Chief Hilda Smoke Sub-Chief John Bigtree, Jr.
Chief Alma Ransom Sub-Chief Barbara Lazore
Chief Paul Thompson Sub-Chief Bryan Garrow
Clerk Carol Herne
Your letter indicates that some of these individuals have since resigned their positions with the tribal government. Please provide this office with documentary evidence of these resignations. Upon receipt of such evidence, the Bureau will entertain the recognition of appointees as proposed by your letter.
Finally, we note that the three chiefs indicated in Council Resolution 99-03, dated June 18, 1999, in which they postponed the Tribe’s regular elections, that they would remain in office only until the District Court litigation was resolved. In view of the fact that the District Court has issued its final judgment in the litigation and the Federal defendants have not requested a stay of the District Court’s decree, we would expect the chiefs to begin preparations for the election of all officers in the near future, and in no event later than June 2000 when the tribe would normally holds its elections.
The newly-recognized chiefs wasted no time in issuing a letter to Cecelia Cook, Director of Akwesasne Housing:
…you have in your office spaces, an illegal entity representing themselves as the “Constitutional” Government. As indicated by the enclosed Bureau of Indian Affairs letter, this self-recognized government no longer exists. Any reference to a purported governing entity is without merit. We are recommending their on-going rental of office space, at the Akwesasne Housing Authority building, be terminated effective immediately and they be directed to vacate the premises effective immediately.267
On February 7, 2000, Judge Carrie E. Garrow of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Court issued an advisory opinion that covered several of the latest developments, such as the authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to recognize the tribal government:
Recognition by the BIA does not confer power upon an individual to act as a government official; it merely designates individuals it will allow to control any federal monies dispensed by the Bureau.268
On tribal self-government:
The only mechanism which can remove the On-kwa-ia-ren-she-ra or officials elected under it are the Mohawk voters upon following the procedures set forth in Mohawk law and custom.269
On the meaning of the letter of recognition from the BIA:
…the letter received on February 4, 2000 from the BIA Field Representative means very little…It is the BIA’s prerogrative to hand over federal money to an antiquated and corrupt system, as evidenced by three federal convictions of tribal officials during the three chiefs’ administration. However, it is the Mohawk people’s prerogative and right to determine the form of government and elected officials.
Thus, the Court finds as a matter of law:
1.) The On-kwa-ia-ren-she-ra and officials elected under it are still the governing body of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.
2.) The letter of recognition issued by the Field Representative of the Bureau of Indian Affairs has no affect on the status of the government of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.
3.) The letter of recognition merely transfers federal monies due to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe to individuals not validly elected under Mohawk law.
4.) The duly elected and appointed officials under the On-kwa-ia-ren-she-ra still retain and may exercise authorities of their respective offices as governed by Mohawk law.270
The following day, the Constitutional Government wrote to Department of the Interior Secretary Kevin Grover, asking him to overturn the position stated in Dean White’s letter of February 4. He declined to do so. Then they formally appealed to Franklin Keel, the BIA’s Eastern Area Office Regional Director on February 24, 2000, arguing that the recognition of the Three Chief System was contrary to Mohawk Law. They pointed out that the terms of office for the three chiefs had expired on July 1, 1999. On April 24, 2000, Keel issued a written determination denying that appeal:
Although I find your argument persuasive and your reasoning sound, your argument is, in essence, an appeal of [Ransom I].271
The Constitutional Government appealed Keel’s decision to the IBIA. Chief Administrative Judge Catherine A. Lynn issued the following determination on May 31, 2000:
The Board believes the best solution to the situation which the Tribe presently faces is the holding of a tribal election. The Superintendent’s letter indicating that the next tribal election would normally be held in June 2000. The Board assumes that the Tribe and/or the tribal officials recognized by the BIA have been preparing to hold an election in June 2000. It also assumes that both factions of the Tribe realize that it would not be in the Tribe’s best interest for them to boycott that election.273
Earlier that month, Barbara Lazore wrote to Dean White of the BIA to notify him that both the People’s Government and the Constitutional Government would be holding elections that year, and to ask which of the two would be recognized. White informed her that the BIA would recognize only the election held under the authority of the Three Chief System, regardless of voter turnout in either election.274
Although supporters of the constitution, Barbara Lazore and Carol Herne were nominated as candidates for chief and clerk in the elections authorized by the Three Chief System. When the election was held on June 3, they lost to Alma Ransom and Patricia Thomas, respectively. (Paul Thompson and Hilda Smoke handily won the other two chief positions while Harry Benedict, Richard Terrance, and John Bigtree, Jr. won the sub-chief positions.) Three days later, the Tribal Council notified the IBIA of the results of the election and requested that the appeal by the constitutional faction be dismissed. Although the supporters of the constitution were opposed to this, the IBIA announced that it would follow its established tradition of dismissing any appeal rendered academic by valid tribal elections conducted during its pendency, and on August 25, 2000, they granted the motion and dismissed the pending appeal as moot.275
On that same day, the Tribal Council passed a resolution ordering individuals holding themselves out to be the “constitutional government” to immediately cease and dismiss
1. From representing, proclaiming, broadcasting, announcing, in any way holding themselves out as the governing body of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and
2. From advertising or displaying any type of signage which proclaims such tribal members as being the governing body of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, including, but not limited to, the sign presently established at the offices; and
3. From assisting, aiding or abetting any other persons engaging in any of the activities referred to in subparagraphs (1) and (2).276
The resolution also gave authority to the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police to enforce the terms of the resolution. Attached to the resolution was an addendum calling for the removal of signs erected at an office complex owned by Barbara Lazore that designated the building as “St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Office and Tribal Courts.”277
On October 6, 2000, Michael J. Anderson, Deputy Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs, gave the final death blow for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Court with a letter to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council. Citing Ransom v. Babbitt, and noting that the United States has dismissed the appeal of that decision, Anderson stated:
As the recognized governmental authority at Akwesasne and in the absence of a governing document adopted by the people, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council determines what authority, if any, its governmental units may exercise. Since you have determined the “constitutional faction” and its court system are without any legitimate authority, the Bureau of Indian Affairs shall disregard any issuance by that “court” of any summons, appearance notices, suits, etc.278
The Constitutional Government now found themselves in the
position as the People’s Government before the Kollar-Kotelly
decision—losing round after round in the federal recognition contest.
Tribal politics being the strange game that it is, they would suddenly
find themselves with an unlikely ace in the hole: a new decision by
none other than Judge Kollar-Kotelly herself!