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Fate of Little Big Horn College president still uncertain

CROW AGENCY, Mont. - After a week filled with indecision, Little Big Horn College President Janine Pease Pretty On Top remained uncertain about her future or if the college she has led - from trailer classrooms and a $58,000 budget, to a 35,000-square-foot facility with a $5 million budget - will survive this storm.

Students protested removal of their nationally recognized president, beginning with a show of support at the college trustees' Nov. 30 meeting.

More than 150 students and alumni gathered in hopes of making a plea to the board of trustees. Their hopes were high when, just 30 minutes before the meeting, three Pretty On Top supporters arrived with letters of appointment from Tribal Chairman Clifford Bird In Ground. The letters said the individuals were to replace one board member who no longer lives in the community, one board member who was appointed by the previous tribal administration and board member Sharon Peregoy, who is the tribal chairman's representative on the board.

Sam Painter of Elk River Law Firm arrived with a letter from Bird In Ground stating Painter had been appointed to replace legal counsel to the board, N. Jean Bearcrane. Bearcrane refused to leave and, before the meeting began, Painter was physically assaulted and left the premises.

The three board members being replaced also refused to leave and suggested the letters of appointments were forgeries.

Pretty On Top called a point of order to suggest the meeting was not valid until the new appointees were seated, but was ignored. Soon the entire room exploded with shouts of point of order!

Ignoring their pleas, the trustees began the meeting, and moved to go into executive session. Chairman Pro-tem Vera Jane He Does It told the crowd they would have to leave, but they refused. A board member called for security to clear the room, but when security guards were unable to move the crowd, board members stood and left the room, followed by the new appointees and a security force which blocked entry to the new meeting room.

The crowd exploded with prayer for Pretty On Top and the fate of Little Big Horn College. The prayers lasted about 10 minutes, while other small groups lingered in prayer longer. Two board members returned to the crowd, saying they had left the executive session, calling it illegal.

When the meeting closed, students waiting outside another exit to the building, overheard board-member discussion about changing the locks at the college immediately, barring Pretty On Top from the facility. Outraged students went to the college and spent the night in the college library denying access to the locksmith.

The following morning newly appointed, interim President Henry Real Bird was asked to leave the premises by tribal security when he attempted to enter at 8 a.m. Students said Bird In Ground heard their plea and dispatched help.

That morning Bird In Ground met with Pretty On Top and student/faculty representative Davis Yarlott. Bird In Ground said his board-member appointments stood, and that he was calling in mediators to help Pretty On Top and the trustees settle their dispute.

At about the same time, Real Bird and a handful of board members were giving a statement to the press saying Bird In Ground would not back the new appointees and that Real Bird's new position was "a go." Later that day, the tribe issued a statement saying Bird In Ground was deeply concerned about the college and the future of his tribe, but would continue to keep an arm's-length relationship with the college, stating that to do otherwise could affect the college's accreditation.

At 4 p.m., Pretty On Top managed to get an injunction from the Crow Tribal Courts stating that college board members could not meet and were restrained from the college, and staying her termination, citing lack of due process. The hearing on the injunction was set for Dec. 8, but Pretty On Top said she would ask for a continuance because she has not yet found an attorney.

Dec. 2, Real Bird called a local newspaper saying he was turning down his appointment. He said his clan mothers and fathers had asked him to do so.

On the afternoon of Dec. 4, students protested again when Bird In Ground sent a letter to Pretty On Top stating he was retracting his new board appointments and the offer of mediation.

Pretty On Top responded by calling congressional leaders asking them to initiate a BIA mediation process.

Student Joe Covers Up met with Bird In Ground Dec. 5, telling him the students would continue to protest if their demands were not met.

At that time Bird In Ground agreed to uphold the appointment of David Stewart and the mediation process. Covers Up asked to see the agreement in writing. That afternoon Covers Up received a latter from Bird In Ground, which neglected to mention Stewart, and said mediation and mediators would have to be agreed upon by both the board and the student council.

In an additional blow, trustees said they would refuse to sign any paychecks unless Pretty On Top resigns. The college's payroll is about $50,000 every two weeks.

On Dec. 6, Covers Up and more than 100 students marched through Crow Agency and were greeted by cars honking in support and shouts to end the protest. Crow Tribe Public Relations officer Leroy Not Afraid looked on and said he applauded students for exercising their civil rights but added the tribe will not change its stance on the situation again.

"The only way this administration will change their stance is if the students bring this before the Crow Tribal Council," he said. "(That is) the voice of the people."

Late that afternoon, Pretty On Top reported to tribal police that the college offices had been broken into at some time during the week and documents, including bank statements, had been stolen.

"These items are replaceable;" she said. "But we are putting deadbolts on the locks today.

The students said they are turning to tribal elders for support and advice.

The next tribal council meeting is Jan. 13. Students would have to gather 100 signatures on a petition seven days prior to that date to bring any resolution before the council.