PLUMMER, Idaho - The Coeur d'Alene tribe elections early this month resulted in a stunning upset victory for Chiarpah Matheson over a longtime incumbent.
Matheson, 27, defeated veteran tribal council member Norma Peone who was first elected to the council when Matheson was only 13.
"I thought I had a pretty good chance but I was surprised at the number of votes I actually received," said Matheson, following the May 5 election.
Matheson won one of two open spots, garnering 153 votes. Incumbent Richard Mullen was next with 144 votes. Peone received 105 votes while nurse Bernadette LaSarte, received 102 votes, and Tina Falcon got 19.
On May 6 the council re-elected Ernie Stensgar to another term as tribal chairman. Chiarpah's uncle Chuck Matheson was elected vice chairman, while Norma Jean Louis received the nod for another term as secretary. Francis SiJohn and Valerie Fast Horse make up the remainder of the seven-person council.
Though Chiarpah Matheson is young, Mullen was first elected to the tribal council at age 21 in 1979.
"Our tribe has a tradition of having the courage of putting their faith in the younger tribal members. It's a faith in the future," Mullen said.
Mullen also said he looks forward to working with Matheson and the new council as he thinks this council will be the one best able to break the "invisible walls between governmental jurisdictions."
Matheson, who will graduate this month from Lewis and Clark College, worked as a tribal law enforcement officer. Tribal members say his experience in law enforcement made for an effective message in dealing with one of the tribe's biggest problems, local non-tribal methamphetamine dealers.
In recent years northern Idaho has seen a proliferation of drug labs spring up in the areas surrounding the Coeur d'Alene reservation. Dealers go to the reservation because they are aware that the tribal police have no jurisdiction over non-tribal members, tribal members said.
The reservation is thus perceived as a haven for drug dealers. Matheson said when a drug crime is committed on the reservation, the tribe has to contact local, non-tribal law enforcement officers who often are slow and indifferent in their response.
He said he wants to change this. One of his main goals will be to expand the scope of tribal police authority to effectively deal with that and other crime problems on the reservation.
During the campaign Matheson went door to door along with a drug counselor and took a survey of the drug use on the reservation. Combining his campaign with a school project, the purpose of the survey was to gather drug data and use it to solicit federal funding for anti-drug programs.
Matheson has suggested an intertribal drug task force be formed so tribes can better communicate with each other on the shared problems of substance abuse.
Tribal members say the election went smoothly and mainly stayed issue focused. There was no mud slinging and the campaign was low-key.
Tribal press secretary Bob Bostwick said the council faces the challenges of an expanding economy largely fueled by its casino and how to meet associated infrastructure needs.
"Our tribal council has a reputation for being both progressive and traditional. That will definitely not change with the new council. They want to keep the delicate balance between keeping tradition and culture alive yet moving the tribe forward into the new century and millennium."