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Meskwaki turmoil continues

MESKWAKI SETTLEMENT, Iowa - While many had hoped the Oct. 21 tribal election would end the year-long struggle for political control of the Meskwaki tribe, the issue may still not be resolved - half the eligible voters didn't show up at the BIA sanctioned polling place, many of them voted at an alternative site. Whether their votes will be counted remains to be seen.

At the Tribal Center, the BIA sanctioned site, voters overwhelmingly elected Homer Bear Jr., Harvey Davenport Jr. and Wayne Pushetonequa, all members of the appointed tribal council that took power last spring, and to recall four remaining members of the ousted board.

Results from a second polling place, set up by the Walker Council and endorsed by a third group from a long-time political family, were not available at press time.

All over the reservation, signs directed voters to both sites, claiming they were the only 'real' voting site. At the main turnoff to the settlement, Marisa Brown and Veronica Lasley, both wearing shirts in support of the Bear council, put up signs encouraging people to vote at the Tribal Center. Supporters for Galen Wanatee, Joe Wanatee and Troy Wanatee, who ran against Bear, Davenport and Pushetonequa in the open election, parked several vans and SUVs near the settlement school site, urging people to vote Wanatee.

One Wanatee sign reads "Peace, Prosperity, Per-cap." Another cites the famous maxim about fooling all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time.

The Wanatees didn't choose the school site because they support the ousted council, but because they support the tribal constitution, Troy Wanatee said. The Wanatees don't recognize the BIA's authority to overrule the tribal council's constitutional right to set the polling place.

"Even with all these legal advisors present, not one questioned if this violated the Tribal Constitution or any other federal laws," the Wanatees said in voter literature. "This should tell the Meskwaki these are not our lawyers to represent us as a tribe, but to represent Homer and Alex as their personal lawyers to pull off the most elaborate crime to take place on the settlement."

"Homer and Alex tried to hide their crimes behind internal turmoil. While we were looking the other way, Homer and Alex are walking hand-in-hand and a bag of money in the other."

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Because of a dispute over primary polling places, incorrect absentee ballots were sent last week, so tribal members who would have voted by mail instead drove from Oklahoma, Minnesota, Kansas, Nevada, Utah and Alabama to cast their vote Oct. 21. The Wanatees believe the ballot mix-up was an intentional move by the Bear group, who narrowly lost the last election because of the absentee vote. About 170 tribal voters live in other states, the false ballot and conflicting newsletters made it nearly impossible for them this election, the Wanatees said.

"They had so much information that we just started telling them to come in," Galen Wanatee said.

Reporters staked out both polling places in this, the most widely covered Meskwaki story in collective memory. At stake here is the casino, the county's largest employer. Elizabeth Kutter, court reporter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, based 45 minutes away, waited outside the school where a Tama County deputy kept reporters from entering.

"We're hoping to build a relationship with the tribe that will make them interested in more coverage," she said.

At the same time, it's a difficult story to cut their teeth on.

"It's just rife with rumors," she said. "There's rumors and exaggeration on both sides and I can't say we've always gotten it right.

But more important than casino income are the legal and jurisdictional issues that have been raised throughout this dispute.

"Tribal politics will never be the same," Galen Wanatee said.