MESKWAKI SETTLEMENT, Iowa - A dispute over leadership of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa could jeopardize the tribe's casino-funded community programs and future state gaming compacts.
The National Indian Gaming Commission gave members of an appointed tribal council - that forcibly occupied tribal offices after the elected council refused to hold a recall vote - a notice of closure at 9 a.m. May 13. They have two days to respond before the commission makes a final decision. If the commission decides to close the casino, the tribe could appeal the decision, said tribal spokeswoman Rhonda Pushetonequa.
Appointed officials met May 14 to decide how they would respond to the notice.
The week prior, the state Department of Inspections and appeals told appointed officials they have one month to return power to the elected council, or risk state gaming compact revocation.
Last fall, citing abuse of tribal funds and secretive council operations, a group of Sac and Fox, commonly known as Meskwaki, tribal members signed petitions to recall the Tribe's elected council, headed by chairman Alex Walker Jr. The elected council initially accepted the petitions, but later rejected them and refused the recall election, saying they felt tribal members had been coerced into signing.
Petitioning members asked the BIA for assistance, but the agency said they didn't interfere with tribal disputes. So the members met again to vote "no confidence" in the council, citing a morality clause in the tribal constitution. Hereditary Chief Charles Old Bear appointed a new council, which occupied the tribal center and took over government operations on March 26.
"What he told us when he appointed us was he would like for us to sit on the council for up to two years, basically for constitutional reform and to address what had happened so it wouldn't happen again," said appointed council Chairman Homer Bear Junior.
At that time, tribal lender Wells Fargo Bank in Marshalltown, Iowa froze the tribe's bank accounts, prohibiting either group from accessing tribal funds until a clearly authorized representative could be named. Tribal members took the issue to federal court, where a judge ruled the court did not have jurisdiction to resolve the dispute.
Then, at the request of Iowa Senator Leonard Boswell (D-District 44), the Department of Interior notified state officials their records show the Walker council are the Meskwaki's official representatives. The National Indian Gaming Commission issued a notice of violation of NIGC rules, calling the appointed council an "occupying group" without authority to manage casino operations. The leadership dispute threatened public health and safety, the notice concluded. The commission gave the appointed council until May 5 to relinquish control to the elected council, but the appointed council refused.
On May 6, Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals Director Steve Young notified both elected and appointed councils that the state recognized Alex Walker Jr. as chairman of the Meskwaki tribe. He ordered casino controls revert to the elected council by June 5, or the state would consider canceling the tribe's gaming compact.
Following the state's lead, the bank reopened tribal accounts to Alex Walker Jr. council members, who immediately withdrew $333,835 to pay for attorney's fees incurred through the dispute. About 30 tribal members protested the bank's actions in a day-long picket line May 5, and have brought a civil suit against the financial institution.
"The people don't recognize the ousted tribal council," said tribal member Ki-Di-Mi, Lynn Morgan. "We have had general meetings, we've had recall petitions, we've had letters of support."
This is the first time Morgan, 55, remembers a council has ignored a recall movement.
"This is the worst tribal council we've had."
Walker had been renegotiating the gaming compact with Iowa officials since last fall when leadership issues halted the process. Negotiations, originally set to be completed in June, could be extended.
About 480 of the 1,300 Sac and Fox of the Mississippi in Iowa tribal members live on the settlement, located three miles west of Tama. The tribe purchased the land in Tama County in 1857 and now own over 6,000 acres. Since 1992, the tribe has run one of the largest casino gaming businesses in the state, the Meskwaki Bingo, Casino and Hotel.