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PR warfare

WASHINGTON – Many tribes have leadership squabbles. But seldom do such battles become fodder for a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post and other well-read publications of the nation’s capital, pitting tribal factions and their relationships with President Barack Obama, against one another.

On Nov. 5, the day of the historic White House Tribal Nations Conference, newspaper readers across the Washington region saw an ad featuring the smiling face of Obama posing next to a grinning Matthew Franklin, the federally recognized chairman of the Ione Band of Miwok Indians of California.

“Mr. President, what is wrong with this picture?” asked large, black newsprint appearing below the photo.

Beneath the image and words was a letter, signed by Nicolas Villa Jr., identified therein as the historical tribal leader of the band.

It claimed that Franklin was not the tribe’s real leader, but rather a tool corruptly put in place to advance the interests of outside gaming investors at the cost of the sovereign rights of the tribe’s citizens.

“The person next to you, Matt Franklin, is recognized by your administration as the Tribal Chairman of the Ione Band of Miwok Indians. However, he is not our tribal leader. He is not a real member of our tribe and cannot even speak our language,” the letter opened.

According to another letter, this one sent to Indian Country Today by Michael C. Copperthite, a Democratic political consultant and informal adviser to some Miwok members, including Villa, the federal government has done the tribe wrong, big time.

“The Ione Band of Miwok Indians is but at the tip of the iceberg in the corruption of activity by certain federal employees,” said the letter.

It noted that in 1994, the traditional government of the Ione Band of Miwok Indians was successful in getting the tribe on the list of federally recognized tribes by demonstrating that the band was recognized at all times prior to the list of tribes that appeared in 1978.

Then the history grew darker. The letter alleged that in 1995, the BIA wrongfully forced the tribe to reorganize its membership to include non-members, non-Indians, and terminated some existing memberships using the United Auburn Indian Restoration Act of 1994 as its basis for action.

They are claims Villa has been making for years, without much success. The BIA and federal courts have investigated his allegations, but he’s never been appeased. The BIA has said it acted appropriately and considers the matter closed.

As a result of the 1990s reorganization, Franklin was ultimately elected chairman, leaving Villa powerless in the eyes of the federal government – which is the main reason why Franklin, not Villa, attended the tribal nation’s conference.

Shin Inouye, a spokesman for the White House, said the administration invited all 564 federally recognized tribes to send a representative to the meeting – and noted it was up to each tribe to determine who they sent.

“It’s ridiculous,” Copperthite said of the situation.

“Just because poverty-level tribes cannot afford to hire a K Street lobbying firm to represent their rights doesn’t mean they should be cut out of the picture.”

While certainly attention-grabbing, Villa’s contentions and the information from Copperthite do not tell the full story, according to previous denials and explanations issued by Franklin, internal BIA investigations, and press reports.

The tribe’s Web site points to a series of articles, which state that the Ione Band has never had a hereditary tribal council, which Villa claims to lead; that the BIA didn’t have a conflict of interest in dealing with the tribe; and that members added to the tribe’s rolls since the reorganization were appropriate.

But Villa said that much of the evidence put forth by Franklin and the BIA cannot be trusted.

He said he has further information that details conspiracies to undermine his tribe’s sovereignty, and he wants to provide all of it to members of Congress. He’s willing to share it with current BIA leadership, too, but since he doesn’t trust how the department has dealt with his tribe to date, he’s keener on trying to get proactive attention from Congress.

Villa is not the first tribal advocate to decry how the federal system treats tribes and to point out that Americanized governance structures, such as those supported by federal law, were not the way most tribes traditionally operated.

But those types of arguments seem to receive increasingly less attention as the years pass by and as more tribes attempt to make headway in the federal system that stands, thus forming constitutions and tribal councils, holding regular elections, and delving into campaign finance and other American political hot topics.

Which is one reason Villa said he placed the ad in the Washington Post.

“People have got to wake up and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ In this case, the federal government has taken steps toward replacing a traditional tribe with a constitutional tribe. It’s not right.”

How long does he think it will take to get people to see things his way?

Villa does not know the answer to that question. Adding to his struggle are the voices of some members of his own family who have sided against Villa as the hereditary leader, instead backing the federally recognized leadership.

But he will forge on.

“The battle has already been won. It’s just that the players might not know it yet,” Villa said, adding that he will continue to urge members of Congress to investigate.

Franklin, too, continues on his way, looking to develop a casino, or perhaps even a water park – much to Villa’s chagrin.

Despite the controversy, the recognized chairman not only attended Obama’s tribal conference, he was also part of a group of tribal leaders who met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Nov. 4 regarding tribal health affairs.

Copperthite reflected after learning of Franklin’s meeting with Pelosi: “Maybe we’ll have to take out another ad asking, ‘Madame Speaker, what’s wrong with this picture?’”

But Franklin is not letting such sentiments get in his way.

“I’ve responded to these charges in the past and have been vindicated,” Franklin said, adding that he plans to continue developing economic opportunities for his tribe.

But wasn’t he embarrassed to see his face plastered in a salacious advertisement during what should have been a serious trip to Washington?

“No, I held my head up high,” Franklin responded. He said no legal plans were in the works to rebut the ad.