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Oglala election chairwoman calls for federal monitors

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PINE RIDGE, S.D. - After a year of political discontent and widespread rumors to the contrary, it seems tribal elections - even for the Oglala Sioux Tribe - are as certain as death and taxes.

But, almost predictably, a year that involved forensic audits, criminal allegations, and indictments of past and present tribal officials, now includes more charges and acrimony over the handling of the upcoming elections.

OST Election Board Chairwoman Melanie Janis is alleging numerous instances of undue interference in the election process by members of the present tribal council, and has publicly called for 21 federal monitors for the coming primary and general election. The monitors would cover 21 voting sites scattered across the reservation and would serve in addition to the 21 monitors mandated in the tribal election ordinance.

Janis said that Silka Hansen, a conflict resolution specialist with the Justice Department, contacted her to formally offer federal assistance in monitoring the elections. Janis said she accepted, and had the official capacity to do so.

"My understanding is that when we were appointed to the election board, we became a separate entity from the tribe," Janis said. "We even put it in the budget to hire 21 extra monitors."

Janis also accused the council of micromanaging the election board's daily business and not finalizing approval of their budget. "First they approved a budget of $107,000, then cut it down to $90,000. Today we submitted another request for $123,000, and that's just the bare bones. But I'm told they're capping us off at $90,000."

Janis, appointed to the election board on July 18, said, "We've gotten no assistance from tribal government, other than appointing us. They've made it impossible for us to do our jobs. It's worse than an obstacle course here."

She said one possible reason for the funding holdup is that the tribe is simply out of money. She said the council's reasoning is that a special election in the Medicine Root District last year cost more than $50,000 which seriously depleted available funds. "I'm really starting to believe they just don't have the money.

"But if there's no money, why don't they just say there's no money?" Janis asked. She then went on to say she was directed by the tribal council to not allow any federal monitors near the election board offices or the voting precincts.

"I received a direct order that the Justice Department was not welcome here. The council said they are unauthorized personnel and they are not allowed. I don't understand it. Basically we're here to have fair elections, we're just here for the people."

Former councilwoman Eileen Janis, a spokeswoman for the group calling itself the Grassroots Oyate, agreed with Janis.

We want to start this election out with accountability." The former councilwoman then shared a litany of what she claimed were examples of recent abuses.

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"In the '98 general elections we lost a ballot box in Pine Ridge, the counts kept changing constantly, a candidate from the Wakpamni District carried her district's ballot box in from their precinct.

"In one voter precinct in Pine Ridge, people were walking out of the building with ballots. We need accountability," she repeated.

Despite these allegations, there is evidence interest in this year's elections is at an all-time high. "This is one of the most important elections we've had. It is being closely viewed by tribal members and outside sources as well," Janis said.

If the number of candidates is any measure, the figures bear her out. Even though the Grassroots Oyate has occupied the tribal government's office building since January 16, 147 Oglala Lakotas have qualified for the official ballots for the Oct. 3 primary election. In the last election in 1998, the previous high of 109 candidates qualified for the ballot. The 38 additional qualifications represent a 33 percent increase.

The record number of candidates are competing for 20 elective offices, with five former tribal chairmen running again for their old job. They are current and suspended chairman Harold Salway, current vice chairman Wilbur Between Lodges, Stanley Looking Elk, John Steele and Joe American Horse.

Also running for the top spot is the controversial current treasurer, Wesley "Chuck" Jacobs. Efforts to remove Jacobs from his post have been at the center of demands by the group occupying the Red Cloud Building. Eight months later, the Grassroots Oyate occupies the tribal office and Jacobs is still tribal treasurer.

As an added sign of the continuing turmoil, three members of the current tribal council who are running for office - Gerald Big Crow, Marlin "Moon" Weston and Manuel Fool Head - are under federal indictment. The charges against Big Crow and Weston stem from an investigation of alleged fraudulent practices in the tribe's federal housing program. Fool Head's indictment alleges illegally obtained tribal funds.

The fall primary will whittle down the number of candidates for president and vice president to two. The top two vote-getters for each office will face off in the Nov. 7 general election.

At present, 13 candidates are on the primary ballot for president. Another would-be candidate, Charles Montileaux Sr., is appealing disqualification. Montileaux was disqualified because he failed to meet the residency requirement in the tribal election ordinance, said Charlene Black Horse, an election board judge. The remaining group of 13 is comprised of 12 men and one woman, Saunie Kay Wilson, the daughter of a former, two-term tribal chairman, the late Richard Wilson.

Six candidates are on the ballot for vice president, with two more appealing disqualification. Grassroots Oyate leader Floyd Hand was denied ballot access because of a prior felony conviction, while Wakpamni District Councilman Robert Red Owl Sr.'s petition was turned down because it lacked the required number of signatures of legally registered voters.

Black Horse said it is possible the appeals board could overturn the election board's decisions, but until then the ballots will remain as they are.

The remaining 128 candidates seek election to 18 spots on the Oglala Lakota Tribal Council. There were 17 council spots in the last term but because of a population shift the Lacreek District has been given an additional seat on the legislative body. Lacreek will have two members sitting on the council in the next term.