The Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes have just received $6,496,276 from First Bank and Trust of Clinton, Oklahoma. The funds had been on administrative freeze since April of 2012 by order of the Custer County District Court due to an inter-tribal dispute over who was the leader of the government.
In the time it took for the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals to rule on the case, the tribe elected Eddie Hamilton as the undisputed Governor of the tribes, and due to Hamilton’s election, the bank and the tribes had come to an agreement for the money’s return and filed a joint dismissal of the lawsuit.
However, just before the scheduled district court hearing on the joint dismissal, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals ruled that the state court did not have jurisdiction over the case and ordered an immediate dismissal of the suit. The court decision also reiterated that a tribal leadership dispute can only be resolved by a tribe itself, not by a state court. Based on the decision, the bank transferred funds to the tribes’ new account.
The confusion began in 2010, shortly after the removal of former Governor Darrell Flyingman after only two years into his term, when he was locked out from tribal headquarters and met by the FBI and tribal police. Janice Prairie Chief-Boswell was soon elected Governor; she won the election along with her running mate for Lt. Governor, Leslie Wandrie-Harjo, but the two of them soon had a falling out. In a matter of months, Harjo claimed to have gotten a tribal court order for Boswell to vacate the office of Governor, but Boswell considered the order to be invalid. At one point, in 2011, Harjo lead a group of tribal members with crowbars, hammers, and bolt cutters in an assault on the tribal headquarters, apparently in an attempt to occupy the executive office, which ended in the police being called in.
Kirk Kickingbird and William Norman, both of the law firm Hobbs, Straus, Dean and Walker, which represents the tribes, talked about the case.
“Harjo attempted to take steps to declare herself Governor and attempted to make a demand on the funds at the bank,” Kickingbird said. “Boswell, as the elected governor, had established the accounts and was the signatory on the accounts, so when the bank was presented with another person declaring themselves to be the governor of the tribe and demanding the funds, the bank did what banks typically do in a situation like that, they went to court and let the court determine it.”
“You get lost in a lot of weeds here because there’s a lot of detail,” Kickingbird continued. “Part of what helped focus it is in the last elections, in the fall of 2013, was Harjo did not run for any office. Boswell ran for reelection but she did not make it past the primary, she did not get into the general election; two other parties did, one of which is the current Governor, Eddie Hamilton. So at that point, that started to clear out the underbrush about the dispute, about who was or was not the governor or Lt. Governor.”
Norman noted that the case is particularly significant because it reconfirmed the sovereignty of the tribes against the states. “The importance of the case is that it reiterated the existing state of the law, concerning the tribal state in the federal areas, that tribes have sovereign immunity from suits. It’s an inherent right of theirs, and they retain it unless they request a waiver, and they had not done so here, so the state court did not have the authority to make a decision about them. It also, as a second and probably equally key point, reiterated that the tribes themselves have an inherent right to determine who their leadership is, and that is not something for the state courts of Oklahoma to determine.”
“Services to the tribal members kind of got lost in all of this,” said Kickingbird, “and that’s where the money was supposed to go.” According to a statement released by the tribe, the funds have been distributed into 25 different fund accounts, 23 of which are Federal programs.