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Crow opposition coalition occupies tribal office

CROW AGENCY, Mont. ? Claiming they had exhausted all other remedies for action from the BIA, more than 75 Crow dissidents peacefully entered the tribal administration building the evening of Nov. 25, maintaining it would not leave until demands were met.

After three days of negotiations, the group left the building without incident Nov. 27 to be greeted by the cheers and trills of supporters gathered nearby.

There has been opposition to the removal of former Crow Tribal Vice Secretary Tilton Old Bull in September and the tribe's new Constitution adopted last July. In October dissidents held their own council meeting without participation of elected officials.

Until recently, opposition members have been fractionalized. But they said recent tribal layoffs and a lack of response from the BIA and the Department of Interior created a bond. Some of those occupying the tribal building, once against Old Bull and his supporters, voted to accept the new constitution.

'We have been ignored by (Chairman) Clifford Bird In Ground and Majel Russel (the tribe's attorney). We've sat here and eaten here to try and get our point across. There has been a pilfering of all available (tribal) funds. We have receded back, almost to the point of 1980 when we had nothing. The Crow Tribe is broke,' former tribal employee-turned protester Sharon Stewart Peregoy complained.

Peregoy said she voted against the constitution and was fired for that reason.

The opposition coalition alerted media to the proposed occupation Sunday afternoon, leading BIA law enforcement to the scene Sunday night. In a move toward peacekeeping, tribal employees entered the building with BIA law enforcement prior to the occupation, cleaned out and locked their offices, and then evacuated half of the building. They left the other half for protesters to occupy.

Protesters demanded a meeting with BIA officials to ask for an opinion from the Indian Affairs Office regarding Interior's position on the 2001 Constitution, removal of Old Bull and the validity of a recent tribal election.

Numbers fluctuated throughout the three days, with individuals coming and going. Late Monday, BIA law enforcement numbers ballooned when a special tactical force, additional officers and trained dogs from across the region arrived. About 25 BIA officers were stationed at the building's four exits and tribal security was informed they might have to evacuate the building as well.

A member of tribal security, who asked not to be identified, said he was under pressure. 'I have family and relations on both sides of the building. We are neutral, we're trying to keep the peace.'

Another security officer responded, 'I'm just trying to make a living and feed my family.'

Tuesday afternoon the atmosphere became tense after BIA law enforcement received a letter from tribal officials requesting removal of the protesters from the building. By 2 p.m. more than 20 law enforcement vehicles surrounded the facility along with a number of ambulances. BIA officer Charles Turner told protesters if they did not leave the building they faced removal if necessary, by force.

Protesters said an unidentified employee from the local hospital informed them law enforcement had alerted the hospital saying tear gas might be used and to expect possible inhalation patients.

Alarmed, protesters rushed to the windows to look outside, and shouted to law enforcement, 'We've got elders and young people in here!'

The canine patrol officer's periodic sweeps of the building created anxiety for the protesters. Again they responded. 'You don't know if those dogs might attack someone in here. We have elders and young people!'

An anonymous Crow tribe employee supplied ICT with a copy of a letter from Crow Agency BIA Superintendent Gordon Jackson stating, 'Apparently you have the idea that BIA supports your position and the October 13, 2001 meeting and actions taken at that meeting. ? We are exercising our government to government relationship with the Crow tribe through its elected leadership. As you recall I told you we would forward a copy of the (meeting) minutes and resolutions you provided me to the Chairman and ask him to issue a written decision ? . I have not received anything from the Chairman, but know his earlier written notice to tribal members said the new Constitution was effective in their (the BIA) eyes, and the October meeting was not needed. This office agrees with the chairman's position, and I have made recommendations to the Regional Director and Central Office that the Secretary should accept the new constitution that was passed at the July Council meeting. In my opinion, should you and your supporters try to occupy the tribal building by force you are clearly wrong. We have asked the Department and Bureau officials to make a decision on the new constitution voicing their views as soon as possible. Please be patient and await their written decision.'

At 3 p.m. Tuesday, BIA law enforcement evacuated the east end of the building and barred entrance to the building. Photographer Marvin Dawes was refused entrance to the building and blocked from taking photos. A local television station reporter struggled with officers when she stepped onto the porch of the building. After a few moments she was allowed to re-enter the building.

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When BIA law enforcement closed the streets surrounding the building, the protesters returned to the windows shouting, 'This is a public place, we have a right to be in here, we are protesting peacefully. You are violating our civil rights!'

The blockade prevented the constant flow of supplies which had sustained protesters for two days. Again they shouted from the door, steps and windows, reminding officers there were elders and many diabetics inside who would need medication and food soon.

Protester, Dee 'Chance' White Hip scuffled with officers when he tried to re-enter the building. He was arrested, then released. White Hip said he received a bite from a police dog during the fray and a window of the building was broken when something was thrown from the outside.

Occupant security chief Harold Hill said White Hip was a part of the group's 15-member security team. He said his arrest, and the blockade, diminished his security to five members.

Peregoy said occupants were willing to stay in the building until their demands were met, regardless of the consequences, including the possible shutoff of electric and phone services.

'We are going to stay in here until we hear from Washington, D.C.,' she said. 'This building is a public place and this is a violation of our rights. We are dual citizens. We are members of a sovereign nation and the Untied States. We have civil rights. We're here for the long haul.'

In a written statement released to the press blocked in the building, William Benjamin, acting director of the BIA area office reiterated much of what Jackson said in his letter, adding that, 'During this deliberative process, some people have opposed the new constitution. This is to be expected as change may cause consternation and concerns. We understand the deeply rooted emotional ties the old constitution has on some of the people. However, with the opposition taking over the tribal administration headquarters, it has created a harmful situation.'

He said BIA law enforcement would take appropriate action to protect everyone at the tribal administration headquarters and that the new Constitution was forwarded to the assistant secretary of Indian affairs in Washington, D.C, for review.

Old Bull read the press release but said he believes the local and area BIA officials are siding with tribal officials.

Tuesday evening Benjamin agreed to meet with Old Bull and two spokesmen at the Crow Agency police department. Fearing arrest and denial of re-entry to the occupation, Old Bull sent two spokesmen in his place. Longtime political activists Kennard Real Bird and Dawes returned from the meeting with Benjamin, Jackson and District five BIA law enforcement Commander Ed Naranjo.

When Real Bird returned, he offered protesters a signed commitment from Benjamin to forward the group's concerns to Interior. He said officials said they would try to get an immediate decision on the constitution, offer due process to Tilton Old Bull and issue a decision whether the election was legal.

Real Bird said Benjamin agreed to set up a meeting between Old Bull and the Assistant Secretary of the Interior as well. Feeling their demands were met the protesters agreed to honor their promise to leave the building after the meeting.

However in a telephone interview Wednesday, Benjamin denied he ever promised to set up a meeting for Old Bull.

'I agreed to listen to the occupants present their issues, in return for a peaceful settlement of the takeover. My primary concern was for the safety of everyone there. They (BIA law enforcement) were going to forcibly remove them, that was the reason I agreed (to meet them). I seriously wanted to prevent any possible bloodshed or harm to anyone. We considered it a law and order issue. Their issues will be presented, but I have not received an official response.'

Tribal offices remained closed Wednesday. Tuesday night employee Andrew Old Elk said the Tribe would not comment on the matter.

Rumors and speculation that arrest warrants will be issued are unconfirmed. The Bird In Ground administration told ICT it had no official public relations person or spokesperson. However, Leroy Not Afraid, former public relations person, spoke with some media and mentioned damage to the building which would precipitate arrest warrants for at least two people. Tribal officials said Not Afraid was speaking unofficially.

Persons who were in the building said there was no damage except for some papers, coffee cups and sandwich bags that were left. One window was broken when someone tapped on the window to get the attention of people inside. Outside temperatures were very low at the time.