By Patrick B. McGuigan | Oklahoma Watchdog
OKLAHOMA CITY — In western Oklahoma, tension and drama perpetually surround the governance of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes. Recent events worsen that tradition, including U.S. bureaucrats landing on opposing sides in a bitter internal tribal fight.
As things now stand, regional operatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs have gummed up the operations of the Tribes, preventing the administration of Cheyenne & Arapaho Gov. Janice Prairie-Chief Boswell from operating independently.
Her election in 2010 seemed at the time a hopeful sign that governance of the Tribes had entered a new, reform-oriented era. But the meddling of local BIA employees derailed many of her efforts. In conjunction (if not outright coordination) with Boswell’s internal tribal-political foes, this has ultimately threatened the entire regional economy.
As for the Interior Department in Washington — ostensibly the managing unit over BIA — the agency ruled Boswell was legitimately elected as the governor in January 2010, and has recognized her government, pending appeals, as a valid recipient of federal funds.
Boswell’s victory three years ago ousted scandal-tainted incumbent Darrell Flyingman. Yet she has never been able to exercise full power over the government of the two tribes.
Crippling factionalism within America’s tribal governments is not unusual. It does not necessarily follow conservative or liberal, Republican or Democratic, or similar lines. In the C&A Tribes and many others, political splits follow generational lines, familial relationships and, increasingly, commercial ties.
BIA bureaucrats also battle among themselves. In the case of the C & As, the Interior Department “home office” accepted Boswell’s election, but regional solicitors for the BIA (based in Tulsa) jammed things up for Boswell from the start.
How such a thing is possible was reviewed in comments from former Interior Department official David Anderson, reported last year in Native Sun News.
Anderson, a successful businessman of mixed Northern and Southern tribal ancestry, lasted only two years in the federal service during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Anderson said that BIA and the Interior Department were “just like any other (federal) department, whether it’s the Department of Education, it’s the Department of Defense (or) it’s the Department of Agriculture. When people come in, just like President (Barack) Obama came in and said everything was going to change, and almost hardly … anything has changed. It was the same for me when I got in. It’s because the solicitors that are in the department, in reality, they’re almost the policymakers.”
Anderson reflected that the solicitors, key players within the federal bureaucracy in D.C. and around nation, counter reformers in the agency and among the tribes: “You ask if this can be done, and (the solicitors) say, ‘It’s not how we do things. It’s against policy’.”
BIA bureaucrats in Oklahoma had leaned Darrell Flyingman’s way for years, even though he is apparently under investigation for past shenanigans. That U.S. probe relates at least in part to his purchase and renovation of a home in Colony with federal housing and tribal gaming revenues, respectively.
Although this year yielded an unusually cool and wet spring in most of Oklahoma, for the two tribes, a fiscal drought was well under way as summer began, due to the crippling lack of clarity about who controls tribal revenues.
Outside of Indian Country, why does this matter? In a quarter century, the Tribes have evolved from a 70 percent unemployment rate and median income of $3,000 to today’s jobless rate of about 30 percent and median income in the teens.
Much of the improvement has come from gaming revenues over the past two decades in Concho, Clinton, Watonga and Canton – and jobs at those facilities.
Once desperately poor, the Tribes have become economically powerful, yet their future is suddenly at risk.
Of the Tribes’ 1,600 employees, 1,300 are tribal members. Due to complex litigation — including bank “interpleader” requests for the judiciary to decide where tribal funds should be sent — the C&As cannot presently access their accounts to pay recurring bills.
Payroll — 75 percent of the C&A budget — is affected, so the regional economy is hurting.
Due to a state judicial freeze on assets, several weeks ago the valid government of the C&As reduced many employees to 32 hours a week and laid off others.
Another economic problem is that oil and gas royalty checks that should be going to tribal members are withheld due to the turmoil. Future economic growth and diversification – including investment of tribal assets into energy – are stymied, a particular problem because investment returns can help offset pending cuts to federal programs.
From the start of Boswell’s tenure, the BIA local operatives have challenged her leadership for purposes of disbursement of federal funds — cash flow that remains still essential for tribal members.
The regional Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) operatives have slowed or impeded distribution of federal funds through Boswell’s government, and those state banks have blocked legitimate access to tribal resources. This is practically — perhaps legally — the equivalent of conspiracy.
Early on, the lower regional levels of BIA sowed confusion by sending funds from federally-managed lands and mineral rights — held in trust for the benefit of the C&A peoples — to a faction led by then-new Lt. Gov. Leslie Harjo.
Harjo, Boswell’s former friend and running-mate in 2010, had turned against her to join the Flyingman group. Countering, Boswell’s attorney general, Charlie Morris, sued for return of funds locked up in a bank in Ada after some of the federal dollars went to Harjo.
That anti-Boswell/pro-Harjo-Flyingman faction includes an “attorney general,” Jeremy Oliver of Pauls Valley, who faces felony allegations of sexual misbehavior. Harjo herself allegedly assaulted a Boswell adviser. Barry Sewell, the head of a bank that tied up tribal funds, faces drunk driving and bribery allegations.
This minority faction and its allies have continuously battled before judges, locking up other monies in yet another court (in Custer County) while the leadership squabble is appealed in D.C.
Not long ago, one bank asked the court to let it release money to the Tribes’ treasury at Concho, so regular bills could be paid. Good news, but legal denial resulted in an appeal to the state Supreme Court.
That key case now awaits resolution, as the fiscal crisis intensifies.
Briefly put, for the sake of C&A peoples – their economic well-being and dignity — the recognized tribal government deserves access to the cash now frozen in the banks. The state Supreme Court should unfreeze the money.
Further, the Obama Interior Department should compel its regional operatives to honor the results of the 2010 election at long last.
NOTE: McGuigan, Oklahoma City bureau chief for the Watchdog.org network, writes frequently on water policy, state-tribal relations, and on the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. His coverage won first place in the Diversity Reporting category from the Society of Professional Journalists. You may contact him at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.