Las Vegas Paiutes oust entire council

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LAS VEGAS ? In a clean sweep, Las Vegas Paiute voters on July 13 ousted their entire tribal council and Chairman Curtis Anderson, who was at the center of heated controversy involving the disenrollment of 14 tribal members three years ago.

In a tribe of only 54 people, the 1999 removals reduced the tribe's official population by nearly one-fourth under revised membership rules quietly passed by the council. Many lifelong Paiutes were excluded.

Though the 14 disenrolled lost their right to vote, other tribal members voiced a clear choice to put the controversy behind them by removing those who had refused to correct the situation.

Tribal members elected Gloria Hernandez as the new chairwoman and voted in new council members Lawana Ramos, Carol Smokey, Robert Segmiller, Shannon Pete, and Gloria Wilson Shearer, whose children were among the disenrolled. The seventh council seat was a three-way tie that will be decided in a run-off election.

The disenrolled members said greed was the real motivation behind those actions, and they are now anxious to see the tribe heal.

"The majority of the people just wanted the old council out," said Debra Faria, whose family members were among the disenrolled. "Tribal members held a meeting about three weeks before the election to develop a plan to oust them. Everyone basically wants the fighting to stop so the tribe can begin to move forward."

Faria's brother, former chairman Billy J. Frye, was disenrolled posthumously though he is credited with acquiring an additional 3,800 acres for the tribe in 1983 that is now the site for construction of a $170-million resort with golf courses and a hotel/casino.

At the time of the disenrollments, revenues from the tribe's smoke shop and other business ventures provided a $100,000 per capita payment annually for enrolled members.

But for most of its history, the tribe was very poor. Not until it began to make money in the late 1970s did other members begin to claim their Las Vegas Paiute heritage.

Curtis Anderson and his siblings relinquished their membership in the Indian Peaks Band of Paiutes in Cedar City, Utah in the mid-80s and sued to join the Las Vegas Paiutes. Three Anderson family members served on the council responsible for the disenrollments.

Since they received letters terminating their tribal membership in July 1999, many of the disenrolled have waged legal and political battles to overturn council actions that they say violated their constitutional and civil rights.

Without the $6,000 monthly payments they once received, some have lost their homes, cars and savings. Others lost longtime relationships in ongoing conflicts that led up to violence.

Faria, a mother of three children, publicly vowed to continue to fight for her heritage no matter how long it took. She picketed tribal headquarters and rallied other tribal members to call for reinstatement of their relatives. She filed lawsuits and encouraged others to stand up for their rights.

In retaliation, the council banned her from the reservation and even arrested her once when she took her daughter to the dentist at the tribe's health clinic.

"I've been a Paiute all my life," Faria said. "They can't take that away [from] me no matter what they do on paper.

Faria said she and other opponents were shocked to hear that someone at tribal headquarters took a bottle of Wite-Out and changed the official 1940 census roll to reduce their ancestors' blood quantum. A forensics expert testified at trial that he found 27 instances of altered records.

The termination letters sent to the 14 disenrolled said they no longer met the tribe's blood quantum requirements after the tribal council ? without consulting its members or a vote on the issue ? quietly passed a resolution to change the enrollment criteria.

The tribe's constitution, passed in 1970, states "membership shall include all persons with at least one-quarter degree Paiute Indian blood whose names appear on the official 1940 census ? and descendants who possess at least one-quarter degree Paiute Indian blood."

Just prior to the disenrollments, the Anderson council passed a resolution stating "the meaning of Paiute Indian Blood has consistently meant ancestry derived from Southern Paiute Blood." Ironically, a copy of the 1940 base roll shows no one was listed as Southern Paiute.

Michael Stuhff, a Las Vegas attorney who filed several lawsuits on behalf of the disenrolled, said the tribe acted illegally in several ways, first by trying to apply ex post facto (after the fact) laws to its members.

"Such a resolution can only be applied from the date it is approved and becomes law," he said. "You can't go back and apply something like that to deceased members.

Secondly, to change membership requirements, you have to follow the process set forth in the tribe's constitution. That wasn't done here. These peoples' rights to due process were seriously violated."

The tribal courts agreed with him. A December 2000 court hearing on the matter ended with Judge Terry Coffing ruling that the disenrollments were unconstitutional.

The tribal council then hired one of the largest law firms in the country to appeal the decision of its own tribal court. At one point, it even went so far as to say the tribal courts had no jurisdiction to review actions of the council.

But in June a three-judge appeals panel ruled that the tribal council had violated its own constitution and the Indian Civil Rights Act in its handling of the disenrollments.

"Election to the tribal council is not a license to invoke any whim," the court wrote in its order to hold an immediate hearing to consider reinstatement of the terminated members.

"It will take a long time for our tribe to heal from what the previous council has caused," said Faria, "but I'm very optimistic that we can move forward from here."