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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 8, 2003 - Issue 82


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Traditional Cheyenne Leaders Fix Modern Problem

by JAMES HAGENGRUBER - Billings Gazette Staff
credits: JOHN WARNER/Gazette Staff
Northern Cheyenne tribal members listen as councilman William Walks Along, seated left, discusses issues with tribal chiefs and council members Thursday night. Standing, left, is Eugene Little Coyote, who has spearheaded a drive to remove Tribal President Geri Small, below.

Northern Cheyenne tribal members listen as councilman William Walks Along, seated left, discusses issues with tribal chiefs and council members Thursday night. Standing, left, is Eugene Little Coyote, who has spearheaded a drive to remove Tribal President Geri Small, below.LAME DEER -- Traditional chiefs and warrior society leaders of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe came to the rescue of their tribe Thursday night.

A lingering dispute between the tribe's elected council and president escalated Thursday morning. Tribal President Geri Small, who was suspended without pay two weeks ago, obtained a court order to resume power.

That prompted a walkout by members of the tribe's 11-person legislature. Within hours, supporters of the legislature were threatening protests and takeover of tribal headquarters.

For the first time in more than a decade, the tribe's hereditary leaders intervened to cool the dispute.

"As chiefs and society headsmen, our job is to provide a peaceful resolution. We wanted a peaceful resolution from both sides," said Leonard Elkshoulder, a member of the Council of 44 traditional chiefs.

Northern Cheyenne Tribal President Geri SmallBefore the reservation system, the Council of 44 chiefs called the shots, Elkshoulder said. Their orders were enforced by members of the tribe's military societies, including the Kit Fox, Elkhorn Scrapers and Crazy Dog Soldiers. Membership was by blood and deed only. Today, the groups stay out of the day-to-day operations of the tribe. But their leadership is called on in times of crisis, Elkshoulder said.

The societies came together in 1995 after the theft of the tribe's most revered item, the sacred hat. They also worked to end a tribal takeover in the late 1980s, Elkshoulder said.

"People asked us to help today," Elkshoulder said. "That's what we did."

The crisis began Feb. 4 when the tribe's elected legislature voted 5-4 to suspend President Small on allegations of mismanaging tribal programs and finances. Small claimed that her constitutional rights were violated. Tribal Judge John Robinson agreed and signed a temporary restraining order against the suspension Thursday morning.

Minutes later, Small walked into the tribal council chambers holding copies of the restraining order. The five members of the council who voted against her were served with the order.

"We adjourned and left. It's been chaos ever since," said Councilman Eugene Little Coyote, who led the charge to suspend Small. "There's a lot of public outrage."

Small took up office again in the executive branch wing of the tribe's headquarters building in Lame Deer. Members of the council stayed in their offices in the other end of the building.

Small called in Bureau of Indian Affairs police officers to keep watch. "The employees were uneasy," Small said.

"We're just here to keep the peace," Police Chief Darrell Azure said, standing outside Small's office.

Members of the council accused Small of disregarding the tribe's constitution. They said she was trying to resume control to stop investigations into her alleged mismanagement.

"We're broke," Little Coyote said. "We have a $1.3 million deficit. That may not seem like much, but when you're a small tribe, it's a lot. We're hanging on by threads."

Small said the council members were only out to get her job. Three of the five who voted against her are previous tribal presidents. Small was elected three years ago with 72 percent of the vote.

"This is just a personal vendetta," she said.

By late afternoon, word had spread through Lame Deer of the standoff. Local residents began trickling into the building. The tribe's hereditary leaders met and discussed the situation at Dull Knife Memorial College.

The chiefs and society leaders met with Small and the legislature Thursday night. They asked Small to stay home Friday. A tribal court hearing on her suspension is scheduled for March 6. The hereditary leaders asked Small to let the matter be resolved in court.

The traditional leaders also asked the police officers to leave the building.

"It only escalates the situation and puts fear into the people," Elkshoulder said.

Small seemed surprised by the entire situation. She stood in the hall of the tribal headquarters as the traditional leaders met with legislators in a nearby room.

"I respect the societies and the chiefs. They came here in a humble way to help the executive branch and legislative branch come to some common ground," Small said.

Elkshoulder played the role of an elder statesman during the crisis. He made frequent trips between Small's office and the office of the legislators. With each trip, he dispelled rumors and dispensed bits of advice, telling both sides to calm down and think rationally. By 9 p.m., the tension had largely subsided.

"People just needed to hear each other out," Elkshoulder said.

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