Monday, July 9, 2012

Chukchansi Lawsuit: BIA Illegally Approved Constitution at Picayune Rancheria

The Fresno Bee continues to find space for Native American issues.  Their reporter Marc Benjamin has the story on a lawsuit against the U.S. for illegally approving a tribal constitution:

A Chukchansi tribal family is suing the United States government, claiming the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians membership rolls and constitution were illegally approved decades ago by Chukchansi who did not own land on the rancheria.

The Ramirez family, which filed a claim last month in U.S. District Court in San Jose, says it was the only Chukchansi family with land on the rancheria when a lawsuit settlement re-established the tribe and 16 others in California. Thus, the suit alleges, the Ramirezes were the only family that legally could authorize Chukchansi's membership rolls and constitution.

In the suit, the Ramirezes are seeking greater "recognition," which could include naming family members to the tribal council, said Dennis Cota, the family's lawyer.

Andrew Bluth, a lawyer representing the Chukchansi tribe in the federal lawsuit, said he did not have authorization from tribal officials to comment on it.

Tribal membership is a controversial issue for the Chukchansi, with tribal councils voting in recent years to disenroll members over bloodlines. The growing animosity has sparked disputes over recent tribal elections and a physical confrontation this year at the tribal offices.

The Ramirez lawsuit is a new wrinkle in an already-complicated issue.

The Chukchansi were among more than 40 tribes disbanded by the California Rancheria Act in 1958. Seventeen were restored with the settlement in 1983 of a lawsuit known as the Tillie Hardwick judgments. Tillie Hardwick was a Northern California Indian who, in 1979, challenged the Rancheria Act to re-establish her status as an American Indian and her home as a tribal site.

According to the Ramirez lawsuit, when the Chukchansi tribe was re-established, five members of the Ramirez family served on the provisional tribal council, but then the family matriarch, Maryan Ramirez, passed away. Mona Bragdon, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, declined a request by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to organize the tribe.

At that point, members of the Wyatt family began lobbying BIA to work with them, the lawsuit said.

Eventually, the BIA allowed Wyatt family members to take over.

The Ramirez lawsuit contends the Wyatts lacked the legal standing to authorize membership rolls or a constitution. Although the Wyatts had once owned land on the 80 acres designated as the rancheria, they had sold their property before the Tillie Hardwick judgments took effect, the suit says.

"The process went forward without the appropriate recognition of the Ramirez family and the government allowed the Wyatts to ratify a constitution," Cota said.

Members of the tribal council have been negotiating with the Ramirez family over the issue for some time, he said.

"There was a long history of trying to resolve this informally," Cota said. "The Ramirez family felt it reached a point where ... there would be no reasonable response from the existing tribal leadership."

There may be legal precedence for the Ramirez suit. In September, a judge found that the federal government did not properly recognize a family that claimed its rights for recognition from the Nisenan Maidu tribe in Nevada City.

Cota said the Ramirez case is similar because the Ramirezes "were not getting satisfaction from the tribe."

But Laura Wass, director for the American Indian Movement in Central California, said her understanding of the Tillie Hardwick settlement would have made all families that were in a tribe at the time of the 1958 Rancheria Act part of the tribe after the settlement -- even if they had sold their land.

If the Ramirez suit prevails, the result could be more disenrollments. The suit alleges that the Wyatt-led tribal council approved 600 tribal membership applications without a tribal resolution.

"It was eventually found that a vast number of the approved applications were ineligible for membership," the suit said.

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