COVELO, Calif. - Controversy is swirling over the remote Round Valley Indian Reservation in northern California as two factions, each claiming to be the legitimate government, exchange accusations.
Each side held an election in April and two competing tribal councils were elected to govern the reservation approximately 180 north of San Francisco.
The problem has been brewing for a number of years and led to a tribal shutdown in 1996. A core group of Separatists calling themselves the Round Valley Nation and numbering between 10 and 44 people, depending on the source, call for a return to what they term a "traditional tribal government" to, as they say, have full sovereignty rights. Early this year the group signed a "Declaration of Independence" which they say is their legal right under federal law.
The federally recognized Round Valley Indian Tribal Council opposes them. Its members claim the Round Valley Nation is a disgruntled group of outlaws who seek to impede tribal progress.
There are several points of contention in a complex issue.
Round Valley, California's second largest reservation in land size, is also among the most destitute.
The heart of the matter seems to be divergent political and economic visions held by the camps. The Round Valley Nation claims the only way to establish true tribal sovereignty is to restructure the tribal government as it was in pre European-contact days.
"This is the only way. The other guys have had, what, like 66 years to do something and people here have just lost hope," says Steve Brown, vice chairman for the Round Valley Nation.
The Round Valley Indian Tribal Council says the Round Valley Nation is not very practical and doesn't have the resources to effectively implement such an ambitious program.
Round Valley, established as a reservation in 1856, is home to the descendants of several tribes - some ancestral enemies - forced into the valley by early white settlers. The Nation says it will have to combine different elements of several tribal traditions.
"We want a government that is led by the elders and ruled by consensus," says Janice Freeman, elected chairwoman in the Nation election.
"They (the Nation) have waged a campaign of terror and propaganda," says Mike Pina, tribal administrator of the federally recognized group. "They have tried to hit us in the legal and financial fields and have even tried intimidation. I've been worried about my staff. Nothing that they've done has worked yet."
Pina, an ex-policeman, says some of these tactics involved freezing tribal assets at the local Tri-Counties bank by using a legal-looking letter from the attorney representing the Nation, Patrick J. Maloney of Alameda.
Freeman says she has no knowledge of her group's attorney taking part in any such financial mischief.
The Round Valley Indian Tribal Council also says the Nation filed a frivolous action in Mendocino County Superior Court. The problem was over a tribal member refused his seat because of a restraining order against him they were attempting to clear. The federally recognized group won in court. The restraining order was not lifted. The result led to sanctions against Maloney.
Maloney declined to comment on this or any other matter saying only, "The white man has spoken enough. I let the Indians speak for themselves."
Nation sources say Maloney straddled them with a bill in excess of $100,000.
Freeman goes on to state she believes any financial problems were not the result of outside interference, adding she believes mismanagement would be more likely the reason for any financial problems.
"We're rebelling against a corrupt government."
Asked what specifically was corrupt about the government, Freeman says, among other things, "they have awarded contracts to people who have family ties to council members."
Pina insists the Tri-Counties Bank incident happened. He also says his government is clean. "We have made sure that any conflict of interest is not in place. In Indian country, with resources so limited, sometimes family members will be part of a contracting organization but we certainly don?t hand out contracts on that basis."
A tribal member, who works for a local American Indian agency and doesn't want her real name used, is not sympathetic to the Nation movement.
"These rebels are individuals who are upset about their lives and are angry because they didn't get a job. They're Communists. They don't really know about tradition," she says. "They're claiming to represent Round Valley but they don't represent me."
She goes on to say she believes the pot was stirred by "outside agitation." She specifically named Tlingit tribal member Rudy James of United Native Nations - a group promoting traditional tribal governments. She said he came uninvited and contributed an atmosphere of divisiveness.
James is perhaps best known for his involvement in a controversial 1994 case that sent two Seattle-area Tlingit tribal youths accused of assaulting a pizza delivery person to a deserted Alaskan island for punishment. Speaking from his northern California office, James says he was invited by Round Valley tribal members after meeting with them at a United Native Nations gathering at the University of California, Davis, last fall.
The Nation claims the backing of tribal elders and claim more people voted in its election than in that of the federally recognized council which Nation leaders call the "IRA (Indian Reorganization Act) council."
The Nation claims 231 people voted in its election compared to 117 for the federally recognized council, with 96 percent of those voting, in favor of them.
Pina says that while these numbers may be correct they don't tell the entire story. He claims the Nation stole voting lists on Election Day and started knocking on doors and gathering absentee ballots, deceiving and intimidating those inside. He said most didn't even know what they were voting for.
Freeman insists the Nation had a fair election. She says an international team of observers was there to oversee the process, including former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris. Calls to Harris' office in Oakland were not returned.
The federally recognized council says that the Nation has waged a campaign of deceit with the elders by telling them that the tribal council wants to take away their homes and Senior Center.
Freeman said she doesn't think this is a deception. "They've closed the Senior Center months ago and said that they were going to do maintenance. We're still waiting."
Pina says he inherited "a mess" and claims his council has never entirely shut down the center. Furthermore, he says he takes exception to "duping and politicizing the elders" by telling them they could be forced out of their homes.
The Round Valley Nation claims some longtime residents and non-tribal, widowed spouses will be forced to leave their homes.
Lack of jobs on a reservation with more than 80 percent unemployment heightened tensions. The federally recognized council says it has just begun a program of economic development that utilizes the timber, fishing and agricultural potential of the land. Its members cite a number of job programs that have already employed many tribal youths, such as training for the California Department of Forestry's fire-fighting division.
The Nation is calling for an Indigenous-based economy where food could be obtained in traditional tribal fashion along with organic, non-native agriculture that would be blended with the necessities of the modern age, such as small, locally based businesses. Its supporters say they have an ambitious plan to restore the native flora and fauna to its pre-European contact state.
The Covelo Cattlemen's Association, a livestock cooperative, is another point of contention. The Nation says this organization only benefits a few tribal members who have had the land zoned for their benefit. They say they haven't had access to housing because the association takes up the land.
The Round Valley Indian Tribal Council claims the Covelo Cattlemen's Association is an old cooperative around for several decades and that the tribe has plenty of room for housing.
Both sides claim a fish hatchery on the nearby Eel River is a key to economic development and each accuses the other of trying to prevent it. Another thing both sides agree on is that gaming should be ruled out because of the remote location as well as a litany of other issues.
The Nation claims there is another reason. "With gaming, all you are doing is giving another form of handout. The people here don't need a handout, they need to learn how to work. With this kind of unemployment most people here have never learned how to work. We need to teach them," says Brown, who adds he has many years of private business experience.
The sides traded accusations of being divisive and pitting Indian against Indian.
"This whole thing is really silly," says the tribal employee. "I just wish that everyone realizes that this is how the white man got us in the first place. Divide and conquer."
One possible solution is to grant Round Valley Nation independent status. There is precedent for this. Several years ago the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians broke off from Round Valley to form its own tribal government.
Nation sources say this case is different in that the Nation claims it is the actual government for the entire tribe and not as a separatist group.
Paskenta is physically removed from the rest of the Round Valley reservation by rugged mountains, they say, whereas the members of Nation actually reside in the valley. The Paskenta also have history independent from that of the valley.
As to possible outcomes, Rudy James says he will take the matter to federal court. "The IRA council has broken federal as well as tribal laws and they'll have to answer to that."
Pina thinks the matter is resolving itself. He claims many of the people who initially signed the Round Valley Nation's independence declaration came back into his camp when he sent a letter to members telling them to dis-enroll if they were joining Round Valley Nation.
Sources in the California Department of Justice hope to mediate the dispute. In their opinion, the two sides basically want the same thing - jobs and more security for tribal members. They said they are hopeful that the matter will be resolved legally and peacefully.